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They're not cute and fuzzy — but this book makes the case for Florida's alligators

Flatiron Books

Rebecca Renner's Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades delivers everything its title promises and much more.

A nonfiction narrative that deals with the history of the Everglades and the state of Florida, as well as poaching and the ways law enforcement battles against it, this book simultaneously focuses on the lives of two men on very different sides of the poaching issue.

Renner, a Florida native, was working as a teacher and freelance journalist with an interest in the natural world when she overheard one of her students talking about alligator poaching. Her curiosity was piqued, and her journalistic inquisitiveness put her on a long path that would lead her deep into the Everglades and into the world of alligator poaching.

To tell the story, Renner had two great figures: Officer Jeff Babauta, a nature lover and Florida Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Commission agent who led an undercover investigation known as Operation Alligator Thief after morphing into the owner of an alligator farm, and Peg Brown, a legendary poacher rumored to have killed 10,000 alligators. Brown had passed away years before but his myth was well known across the Everglades. Renner tells the story of Babauta's operation while also tracking down stories of Brown's adventures and trying to separate fact from fiction — a tough task in a place that loves embellished storytelling. The result is a gripping narrative that's also a beautiful love letter to the fauna and flora of the Everglades, a call to support conservation efforts, and a celebration of alligators as amazing animals with unique personalities that play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem they inhabit.

Gator Country is impeccably researched. However, it doesn't triumph because of all the facts and information it contains and the way Babauta gave Renner full access to his story; it triumphs because of Renner's storytelling skills and the way she weaves together the stories of Babauta, Brown, alligators, the Everglades, and herself. It's easy for nonfiction writers, especially ones with a journalism background, to fall into reporting, which oftentimes means the story lacks something powerful to pull readers in. That's not the case here. Renner's writing seamlessly blends everything she knows, often starting with a car ride and then finding its way to things like Greek mythology, mermaid ivory, prehistoric times, the arrival of the Spaniards to Florida, and the history of the Seminoles, who have been in the area since time immemorial. This is an extremely informative book but it's also gripping — and that's what makes you keep turning the pages.

On its surface, there are two main characters in Gator Country. The first is Officer Babauta, whom readers follow as he slowly morphs into Curtis Blackledge, his undercover identity, and a man who's very different from Babauta. "I don't recognize you, man," Babauta tells the mirror during this process. His transformation skills, which were what landed him the gig in the first place, will come into play time and again as he navigates the alligator poaching underworld for the first time with the confidence of a seasoned professional. The second character, who is just as present despite no longer being alive, is Peg Brown. He embodies not only the multilayered poacher Renner wants to present — good and bad, killer and victim of the system, criminal and trickster, poacher and someone in tune with nature — but also someone real who morphed into a legend thanks to Florida's love of storytelling.

While there is plenty of action and the chronicle of Babauta's transformation and Renner's search for the truth behind Peg Brown's legend are incredibly engaging, Gator Country is also a heartfelt love letter to nature in Florida, and the writing reflects that. In theory, the endless descriptions of swamps, animals, trees, roads, and sounds should get old after a while, but they never do. Renner loves the flora and fauna of her state, and she spends a lot of time sharing its beauty with readers. In this book, we see what Renner sees and even smell the world around her. The result is perhaps one of the most important things the author wanted to accomplish with this book: We love that world and want to protect it.

Alligators aren't cute. They don't inhabit places that are comfortable for outsiders to visit and they are often seen, as Renner points out here, as a "nuisance." However, they deserve the same love, respect, and protection as any other animal that has been in danger before and could be in danger again. Gator Country is an invitation to give them just that, and it contains everything people might need to feel informed. Renner's debut is self-assured and full of poetry, and it will change Florida in the eyes of everyone who reads it.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabino Iglesias