Did I Have an Alligator Mother?
Story by Judith Fein, photos by Paul Ross

The swamps of Louisiana stir conflicting reflections on a writer's recently deceased mother.

Louisiana travel

In the book of life, the decline and death of one's mother is a significant chapter, and when it ends, it is also the end of any hope that things will change for the better. Frankly, I had a very complicated relationship with my difficult mother and I was trying unsuccessfully to make sense of it after her recent death. I figured that traveling was as good a way to heal as any I know, so my husband Paul and I headed for southern Louisiana.

I tried to distract myself by eating boudin—a pork, rice, and spice sausage—and going to a Cajun dance hall. I tried to drown my sorrow in gumbo and crawfish etouffée. But my mind was on fire with memories of senseless, purposeless mistreatment and no amount of food could put the fire out.

dance hall

I tried nature, which can be such a balm for the soul. On a Grosse Savanne Eco Tour, sailing between freshwater marshes and coastal prairies, I marveled at a glossy ibis who seemed to turn iridescent green and purple when the sun shone on it. My eyes darted to follow the flight patterns of dragonflies and my ears were attuned to the orchestral noises of birds in the trees. But no sounds, no wildlife, could eradicate the concatenation of images in my mind about the loving mother I longed for, and the real, palpable mother I actually had, who was now gone.

One day, we were on an Airboats & Alligators tour, sitting on a flat-bottomed boat with an aircraft-like propeller, next to owner Ben Welch. Welch, who is an alligator farmer, explained that he flies over marshland in a helicopter and finds alligator nests with eggs. Many eggs are destroyed by predators and weather, and his job is to take the eggs, carefully preserve them, and hatch them into baby gators. "Ninety percent of them do not go into bags and clothes," he says. "In nature, one to two per cent of the eggs survive. We have a 90 to 95 percent survival rate."


Big Reptiles Make Bad Mothers

I listened attentively when he talked about mother alligators, because I had mothering on my mind. "The mothers always come after us when we go for the eggs. Sometimes they flank you or jump you," he explained. "They have jumped into my lap, eaten my boots, hissed at me."

"Boy," I commented with secret envy, "those alligators are sure protective of their babies."

"Nope," said the affable Welch. "Alligators are not nurturing mothers. They don't care if the babies live or die. The only animals that protect their young are mammals, like us. Alligators protect their nest because it's theirs. An alligator mother will eat all the babies if conditions are bad—like a drought or no water. She's just a wild animal after all."

So now I knew for sure. I had an alligator mother. And there was some comfort in realizing that I was not alone; that I could, in fact, relate to a class of animals whose experiences were like my own.

One of the other passengers on the airboat, a Southern lady, overheard my conversation with Welch, and she chimed in, "I can relate. My own mother was a street angel and a house devil."

I began to cackle when I heard the colorful Southern expression. It was the first time I had laughed in weeks. Something in my heart lightened when I discovered my link to alligators, and could understand my mother in the context of the animal kingdom.

Big Reptiles Make Good Mothers

So imagine my surprise when, visiting the Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum in Houma, in a section about alligators, I came upon an information panel called "Mama Loves Her Babies." My eyes grew bigger than golf balls as I read that a pregnant mother alligator carefully builds a grass nest to lay her clutch of forty or more eggs, and stands guard over her future children.

Rob Guidry

In August or September, a chirping sound means the babies are ready to hatch. Mama uncovers the nest to welcome her precious babies into the world. Sometimes she carries them to water in her mouth. Young alligators remain with the mother for up to three years, growing a foot a year.

Wait a minute. I thought alligators weren't good mothers. But there it was, in black and white: they sacrifice, nurture and, presumably, love and care for their children. I guess I didn't have an alligator mother after all.

Are They or Aren't They?

A day later, we embarked on A Cajun Man's Swamp Cruise with singer/songwriter Rob "Black" Guidry. We sailed through jungle-like foliage, including three-foot-wide elephant plant leaves. Black obviously had done this cruise a gazillion times, and his rap, while interesting, sounded canned. Until he came to the part about alligators. Even though I accepted that I did not have an alligator mother, I was still curious about those mamas.

"There's a mother here guarding her nest, and I call her Mama Gator," Black announced. "It took me three days to train her to come and feed."

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