An 800-pound gator in Mississippi has broken the state record for the largest ever caught.
Nearly 400 pounds of meat from the creature was donated to local soup kitchens to feed the hungry.
The massive hide will take months to become leather but can be made into purses and shoes.
Shane Smith, the owner of Red Antler Processing in Yazoo City, Mississippi, has seen many gators in his life, but nothing like this.
A behemoth alligator more than 14 feet long was caught Saturday in Mississippi by four hunters on the Yazoo River. It broke the state's size record, weighing in at a whopping 802.5 lbs. The previous record was set in 2017 by a gator that was 14 feet and three-quarters of an inch long and weighed just over 766 pounds, Fox News reported.
The animal's meat, harvested by Smith, will end up in the mouths of the hungry, and its hide, which will take months to process, is set to become fine leather goods. Local conservationists also say getting the massive predator out of the water is good for the species' population and will keep people and pets safe.
"It was surreal. You know, I've seen a lot of big alligators as a processor and as a hunter, but this one was just unlike any one I've ever seen," Smith told Insider. "It was truly amazing."
Will Thomas — the licensed hunter who, along with his friends Don Woods, Tanner White, and Joey Clark, are credited with reeling in the monstrous beast — told The Washington Post it took nearly seven hours of "pandemonium" and "chaos" to catch and kill the creature with a shotgun blast, in accordance with state law.
"The boat started taking on water, and we had to get him to other side to keep him from sinking," Thomas told the Post. "You had four guys and a 14-foot alligator in a 14-foot boat, so it was touch-and-go there for a minute."
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks announced the record-breaking catch in a statement posted to Facebook, congratulating the hunters: "They harvested this male alligator in the West Central Alligator Hunting Zone. He measured 14 feet and 3 inches long, with a belly girth of 66 inches and a tail girth of 46.5 inches. He weighed 802.5 lbs!"
Within two hours of being caught and dispatched, the creature was taken to Smith's meat-processing center. From there, it took roughly four hours to break down the body, Smith said — two hours to meticulously remove the skin so it could be turned into high-quality leather, and another two to de-bone and vacuum seal the meat.
Roughly 380 pounds of meat was donated, Smith told Insider, to soup kitchens and nonprofits around the area, such as Hunters Harvest, to ensure none of it went to waste. While the ribs and meat of the creature can be smoked or grilled like other proteins, Smith said gator nuggets — which he said taste like a combination of fish and chicken — are his favorite.
Thomas and representatives for Hunters Harvest and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Insider.
"The most interesting fact about this catch is that 18 years ago, I believe in 2005, a local resident of Vicksburg, Mississippi, called the game and fish department and reported this alligator as a threat to them," Smith told Insider. "And they came out and caught this alligator, and they put a little tag on his toe — kind of like a little earring, but they put it on as the webbing of its foot — and they released it into the Yazoo River. And here, 18 years later, these guys caught this alligator about 22 miles upriver from where they released it back in 2005."
Smith said the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks estimated the gator to be at least 20 years old when it was first caught in 2005, making it about 40 to 45 years old today — a rare find for its age and size. At the processing center, Smith said researchers from Clemson University came out to take tissue samples and the gator's stomach to research how the water content of the river impacts local gator lifestyles and diets.
Christy Plott, the vice chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's crocodile specialist group told Insider that, while members of the general population might have qualms about killing the creature, its death was positive for the local environment.
"These wild culls are amazing, honestly, it's incredible population control for the species," Plott said. "About 1 to 2% of wild alligators are culled annually, so it's not a big number, and the goal is to take out some of the larger animals that are not productive for breeding and keep other alligators from breeding — which is obviously bad for the population as a whole."
She added that large gators like this one also become exceptionally dangerous to pets, livestock, and people, making the catch a big win for the local community.
Gator boots can promote conservation
Plott, who is also the fifth-generation owner of American Tanning & Leather, is set to be responsible for turning the gator hide into leather over the next few months.
"An alligator that size will yield a belly width, which is what leather goods makers use to make products, it should yield a belly width of well over 100 centimeters wide, so that's a really, really big animal," Plott told Insider.
Processing a hide, start to finish, generally takes between nine and 12 months, Plott said, and the leather can be dyed any color imaginable — from inky black to lime green. A sizable old gator like this, she said, will have scars across its belly from fights it had throughout its life and will most likely be dyed a darker color to minimize its appearance.
"An alligator of this size you could probably make somewhere around nine pairs of cowboy boots or 10 pairs of cowboy boots from it, which is a lot," Plott said, adding that each pair would probably cost several thousand dollars. "An average seven-and-a-half foot alligator, you can make somewhere around nine belts out of it."
Alligator leather, Plott says, is among the most highly regulated, traceable forms of leather in the world and one of the only leathers available today that does not destroy any original habitat for its production. It's also challenging to work with, she adds — making it one of the most expensive luxury leathers available.
In 2005, Mississippi launched its public alligator-sport-hunting program, allowing a limited number of permitted hunters to capitalize on the gains from hunting the creatures on a few state-protected sites. That program has since expanded to allow alligator hunting on all public waters statewide, though hunters are limited to harvesting one gator more than 7 feet long per 10-day-long annual season. This season began August 25 and will conclude September 4, The Vicksburg Post reported.
"The Mississippi program has grown the population. In the 1960s, there were less than 100,000 animals in the wild, and today there are over 4 million alligators in the wild," Plott told Insider. "So it's really awesome to see the alligator to have rebounded — it is the single greatest conservation success story in the history of the world."
Read the original article on Insider