Rufus Godwin learned the fate of his missing hunting dog Flojo when a 500-pound alligator coughed up the animal’s electronic tracking collar.
Then, when trappers slit open the gator’s belly, they found the tags and collars of six more hunting hounds.
For the past 20 years, hunting dogs have been disappearing in the Blackwater River State Forest. Their owners, members of the Blackwater River and Santa Rosa fox-hunting associations, thought people were stealing them.
The thief, it turns out, was the gator, which had turned a game trail into his private diner, grabbing dogs as they ran across Coldwater Creek in pursuit of game. Their barking apparently was his dinner bell.
Godwin had set Flojo, a $5,000 Walker fox-hunting hound, loose in the forest about 45 miles northeast of Pensacola. The last he heard of her was her bark as she chased an animal, probably a deer.
Four days later, he was using the tracking device for her electronic collar to search for her when he caught a faint signal.
Jamie Sauls was with Godwin. He, too, received signals from a collar worn by a dog he had last seen several weeks earlier. They also got a response from a third collar that had been on another friend’s dog.
“When we walked up to this hole, just all of a sudden the boxes went to beeping out of sight. They just went wide open,” Godwin recalled by telephone Monday from his home in Chumuckla. “So we knew then we were dealing with a gator.”
The 10-foot, 11-inch reptile was captured Aug. 15 by state-contracted gator hunters.
Four men harpooned the beast, taped its mouth shut and wrestled it until they had the animal hogtied. During the struggle, the gator spit up Flojo’s $125 tracking collar. Later, after the animal was killed, the gator hunters slit open the belly.
“He had half of her in him,” Godwin said. “The other half we found” about 75 yards away.
In the belly of the beast was a collection of dog collars, including Flojo’s flea collar. Another collar was from a dog that belonged to Aden Fleming, who lives near the swamp. That dog disappeared 14 years ago.
The gator was estimated to be 50 years old.
“He would come out of his hole, come up a slough, get in the Coldwater,” Godwin said. Then he would come up the creek 200 yards and sit on the trail.
The trappers hired by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, David Smith and Lonnie Stone, had an easy job finding the alligator thanks to the electronic tracking equipment.
“That was kind of a new one on us,” Stone said. “I wish I could get all of them to swallow one - of course, without the dog.”
The gator’s home was a frightening quarter-mile from a popular swimming hole on the Blackwater River. If not for the steady diet of dogs, the gator might have tried to lunch on children, Godwin said.
“As long as we kept carrying him $5,000 dogs, he was eating good,” Godwin said.
Lt. Stan Kirkland of the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission said 4,632 alligators reported as nuisances - some of which had a taste for dogs - were killed in Florida last year.
“It’s morbid in one sense to find out your dog or pet wound up being food for an alligator, but that’s the reality of it,” he said.
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