James Hartobey '01 - B.A. Biology - The Alligator Wrestler

James Hartobey graduated from Gallaudet with a degree in Biology in 2001. He worked at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana after graduation, then moved to New Jersey where he currently works as a scientist for the state.

The Alligator Wrestler

by Roseanne Bangura
This article originally appeared in the fall 2001 issue of
The Gallaudet Link.

Could you wrestle a ten-foot alligator? Or rather, would you want to? James Hartobey did. As a matter of fact, he went looking for alligators last summer during his internship at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge on the remote gulf coast of Louisiana.

James Hartobey captures an alligator at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in LouisianaJames has never been afraid of wild animals. He had a previous internship in 1999, working with the Department of the Interior at Fort Meade in Maryland collecting data during the annual deer hunting season. But this past summer, James was looking for a little more excitement and as he puts it, "I was hoping to work with animals that didn't run away from me, but instead, ran after me!"

He definitely got what he was looking for, working with the American alligator (alligator mississipiensis). The Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge is the leading research center in the nation on this species. James was the first intern they have ever employed. He was also the first deaf person the Refuge worked with.

Before he got the internship, he knew he wanted to work with alligators. After contacting the Louisiana Department of Wildlife, he was referred to the Fur and Refuge Division where he was accepted for an internship. The Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge gave him a cabin to stay in and a truck to use. Gallaudet University's Career Center provided James with a stipend for food.

James grew up in the New Jersey suburbs near New York City and attended Governor Livingston High School, a mainstream program in Berkley Heights. His family was always involved in outdoor activities, like hunting and fishing. This pastime grew into his passion, which led James to major in biology at Gallaudet.

During his internship, James worked with a team of biologists to collect data on adult alligators that roam freely on the 86,000-acre refuge. The team tracked alligators by helicopter and airboat to take blood and temperature samples. From that data, the health of the alligator and the availability of food could be determined. Because the Refuge is concerned with the safety of its workers, teams of four people are often required to "wrestle" an alligator and subdue it long enough to do research.

James also worked with another team of biologists to collect fertilized alligator eggs. Mother alligators build nest mounds in the swampy marshes of the gulf coast and lay an average of fifty eggs. Biologists had the responsibility of locating nests by helicopter, since it's easier to spot the mounds from above. After marking the locations by stabbing long orange spears into the ground, the biologists would then return by airboat to gather the eggs in a large steel bucket, cover them with the hay from the nest, and then take the eggs back to the research facility to be placed in an incubator.

The alligator population is endangered and the survival rate of young alligators in the wild is very low. Biologists do their best to save every fertilized egg they can find. Palm-sized eggs take about three months to hatch. When they do, out pop wiggling ten-inch alligators with their full set of teeth! The Refuge will keep the alligators in pens for two to three years, or until the alligators are about four feet long. The young alligators are fed a diet of ground muskrat and nutria, the same sort of meat they would be eating in the wild. When the alligators are large enough, they are released back on the Refuge or shipped to other areas of Louisiana where the population is dwindling due to poaching.

Alligators can live for eighty to one hundred years. The oldest alligator James and his team caught was about 35 years old and was ten feet long.

When James wasn't busy catching alligators, he would take a boat out into the marshes and the Gulf of Mexico to fish and catch shrimp. Though his time away from work wasn't as idyllic as it might seem. He had to lather himself with a high deet- concentrated mosquito repellent to keep the thousands of mosquitoes and horse flies away. He also had to beware of other wild animals that roamed free on the Refuge - wild boars, coyotes, and poisonous snakes. He even wore socks at night in bed to keep the black spiders that crawled in through the cracks in the cabin walls from biting his feet.

Even with all that, James wishes he could have extended his four-month internship. His enthusiasm hasn't gone unnoticed. Ruth Elsey, a biologist at the Refuge was impressed with James' "keen interest in field research" and his willingness to work "long hours under adverse weather conditions."

James even has three job opportunities lined up after he graduates this December, though he's waiting to get a job offer to work with the black bear population in New England. From deer to alligators, to black bears, he's a guy who's not afraid!

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