TALLAHASSEE - It's the closest anyone ever will get to Jurassic Park.
Almost 6,000 thrill seekers have surrendered $272 each - out-of-state residents pay $1,022 - to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for a license to kill Alligator mississippiensis, once known to Spanish explorers as "el lagarto," the lizard.
There's a two-alligator-per-person limit and applicants need to hurry.
South Florida permits disappeared quickly. Go to myfwc.com and follow the links to the statewide alligator harvest program to learn more.
Worldwide recession and jobless-recovery notwithstanding, the annual statewide hunt remains popular, said commission wildlife biologist Steve Stiegler.
"The response has been good this year," he said.
Hunted to near extinction, alligators landed on the endangered species list in 1967. They rebounded and were downgraded to threatened in 1987. Rough estimates put the Florida population at 1.3 million.
Alligators appear in all 67 Florida counties, from lakes and rivers and swamps to the occasional golf course, downtown retention pond or suburban swale.
The alligator ranges from Oklahoma and Arkansas to North Carolina and males can grow longer than 14 feet. The Florida record, 14 feet, 31/2 inches, was bagged last year on Lake Washington in Brevard County. Captive alligators have lived for 75 years.
They are considered reptiles, but are more closely related to birds and dinosaurs. They have devastating jaws that can crack turtle shells like peanuts. Their muscular tail can land a blow like a 2-by-4 and swamp a canoe.
They are hunted mostly at night, when their avian eyes glow red and menacing just above the water's surface.
Even after fighting on a line for more than hour, the big ones can be hard to kill.
Some hunters have learned the hard way not to bother with small-caliber ammunition.
"You can actually bounce a .22 off of a gator's head," said Pete Kinnamon, a veteran outdoorsman from Lakeland who for 26 years held a license as a nuisance alligator trapper.
A common way to deliver the coup de grace is with a bang stick. The long metal rod has a cylinder at one end that holds a projectile. The firing pin activates when the rod is jammed against the alligator's skull.
Kinnamon's homemade bang stick holds a .357 magnum or .44 magnum shell. The user gets one shot before having to reload.
"When you're standing in the water reeling him in and he's coming between your legs, you want to get him the first time," Kinnamon said.
Kinnamon, 64, has long since given up the hunt. Almost every encounter ended predictably and he never suffered a serious injury.
But alligators started to change and he wondered how long his luck would hold. As their habitat shrank and human contact became more common, alligators grew bolder, Kinnamon said.
"They started hunting me," he said. "They've gotten to where they just don't have a fear of people."
These days, Kinnamon has gone into the tanning business and hawks alligator products from his website.
Hide prices collapsed two to three years ago with the onset of the recession. Exclusive retailers, the kind who sell jewel-encrusted alligator purses for $190,000 and men's full-length alligator leather coats for $150,000, demand flawless hides and that usually means farm raised.
The price of wild hides plunged from $55 or more per foot to $15 or less.
Lane Stephens, a lobbyist who also holds the nuisance trapping license for Gadsden County, said the point is the thrill of the hunt.
"A lot of it is the chase and a lot of slow time," he said. "But when you get a 200-pound or 300-pound gator on the line, and it flips its tail and splashes you and you get soaking wet, it gets exciting pretty quick.
Jim Ash, Florida Capital Bureau