10 Country: Alligator Re-builders

Joe at the Okefenokee Swamp
Joe at the Okefenokee Swamp

December 30, 2008

Ware Co. -  Sometimes progress gets made by going backward, and a sign on a fence- wire, wood gate in the Living Swamp Building at the Okefenokee Swamp Park south of Waycross asks visitors to pardon the progress.

Visitors find it hard to ignore two men intensely moving osteoderms, as if playing a board game, on a clear sheet of plastic. But, Don Berryhill and Jim Brewer don't play games. They work with a biologist's seriousness and an engineer's precision to place each osteoderm exactly where Mother Nature had them on Oscar, the alligator.

"There are 183 of these (osteoderms)," says Don Berryhill a teacher and expert on the Swamp and its many plant and animal inhabitants.

"I never knew that," says Jim Brewer, a dedicated volunteer who works with Don on the special project. (Jim gets numerous, informal biology lessons from Don as they work.)

The osteoderms form a perfect pattern on the alligator's back.

"They were probably used as armor long ago, back in the pre-historic days, 250 million years ago when they (alligators) dealt with predators," says Don.

Now, alligators have few, if any, predators, except human poachers.

"It really fascinates me that he had such body armor. He's built like a tank. He's built for fighting. He's built to withstand trouble," says Jim.

The osteoderms became the animal's central heating and cooling system.  Their rather large surface area captures more of the sun to help warm it, and dissipates heat when the animal gets too hot. An efficient, reliable, all-natural environmental control system.

Oscar, the alligator getting memorialized, dominated a thousand acres in the northern part of the Swamp for decades; a huge alligator often found sunning near the entrance to the Park and a visitor favorite. People remember Oscar's large size, and staff members remember feeding him by hand, but never forgot that he was wild.

"He was a fighter. He had to defend his 20-something girlfriends," says Don.

Male alligators claim about a thousand acres and females claim about 50 acres each in the Swamp.

The popular reptile died of natural causes in a pretty camellia garden on July 19, 2007 and the park staff immediately retrieved his body. They wanted a taxidermist to preserve Oscar, but the park didn't have the estimated $40,000 for the procedure.  So, they did the next best thing-they ask Don to preserve Oscar's bones for a special memorial, educational exhibit.

"He was in the neighborhood of a hundred years old," says Don who knew of the alligator when he visited the Swamp in 1965, and frequently saw him sunning on the grass. Don often spotted Oscar swimming.

As Don, Jim and about 60 others from the community prepared Oscar's bones for display, they found he lived a very interesting life.

"He was a survivor," says Don who pointed out three holes in the skull were poachers tried to kill the alligator. Lead shot fired from shotguns remain embedded in his skull as bluish/grey dots.

One of the bullets shattered part of Oscar's right skull and damaged the top part of his mouth.

"He probably had a hard time eating for six to eight months," says Don, pointing to scars inside the mouth.

Chewing had to be painful. (Imagine a bullet hole in the upper part of your mouth and trying to eat.)

The poachers wanted Oscar's hide and meat, and probably bragging rights that they had killed him, but they never got them.

"That made him special that he could survive the onslaught of human beings," says Don.

Don and Jim have a special talent to recognize every bone, and know where it goes.

Jim's employer, Imtec, a high tech, precision engineering firm that makes better than original parts and custom equipment in Waycross, continues to pay him as he works on the project. The company volunteers its engineering expertise and manufactures custom parts that enhance the accuracy of the exhibit.

Jim got interested in the project with Don stopped by inquiring about how to maintain the structural integrity of the alligator's spine. Jim became interested.

A stainless steal rod holds Oscar's backbone precisely in place. Jim and Don delicately place one end of the skeleton to Oscar's skull and suspend it exactly where it needs to go.

The osteoderms sit literally inches above the skeleton. A gentle bump of the cabinet causes the osteoderms to vibrate, as if applauding Jim and Don's progress.

Jim measures to make sure the skeleton is level. His preciseness impresses Don.

"My worst fear, when we get through with this, is for someone to walk up and say, 'That's in the wrong place.' I wouldn't like that at all. It needs to be correct, period," says Jim.

They intend to have the exhibit completed in spring of 2009. Visitors will get to see a special alligator's bones like they've never seen before.

And, Oscar would be proud. People called him Oscar, an alligator who ruled the northern 1,000 acres and live to a ripe old age or perhaps 100 years old.