HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — The knives are sharpened and the shiny steel gurneys bloodied at All American Gator Products, the end of the line for about 1,000 alligators killed during this year's hunting season in Florida.
It's the busiest time of year here at one of the state's largest gator processing plants, where the toothy reptiles make their first stop on a path from the swamp to a hamburger bun, a basket of nuggets or a spot on a shelf full of handbags, wallets and souvenir heads.
Roughly 6,000 alligators are killed each year in Florida during the 11-week public hunting season from August to November. Most end up at one of the state's 34 licensed processors.
All American and its co-op partners process roughly 200,000 pounds of alligator meat — about 2,800 gators annually — for sale to individuals and restaurants.
On a recent afternoon in the yellow-walled warehouse that looks like a morgue, workers in yellow rubber aprons sliced into half-skinned gators splayed out on steel tables.
A few feet away, others diced up meat into nuggets and filets, while at another table, workers weighed, bagged and boxed slabs of the chicken-like flesh. A nearby room held stacks of gator hides.
The facility smells like, well, alligator — a fishy, overpowering stench that takes a little getting used to.
To owner Brian Wood, "It smells like money."
"Anytime the plant is smelly, that's a good thing," Wood said.
After 21 years in business, he supplies alligator meat to 38 states using major distributors like Sysco Corp., the largest food distributor in North America.
Last year, Wood had about $1.2 million in sales, 70 percent from alligator meat, which generally goes for up to $9 a pound.
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The hides, too, were once valuable, used by high-end retailers such as Prada and Gucci for purses, handbags, belts and wallets.
But with the economic downturn, the values have plummeted, Wood said.
Just two years ago, hides were going for $57 a foot, mainly to overseas buyers. That dropped to about $44 per foot last year. Now, practically nothing.
"I have 800 hides I have not been able to sell," Wood said.
He also preserves intact, after removing the flesh and bones, up to 10 percent of the gators he processes for hunters who want them made into stuffed trophies.
"Some people also want the skins tanned into leather, and we'll manufacture products for them so that way they can have a wallet or briefcase or boots made from their alligator," Wood said.
With its annual gator hunt, Florida is like other Southern states populated by the large reptiles, including Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
And with more than a million gators, Florida typically has no shortage. Last year, 22,447 alligators were killed there, said Stephen Stiegler, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That includes animals taken during the public hunt, hunts on private lands and reptiles taken from the wild because they had become nuisances, a potential danger to people or their pets.
The state also had 57 licensed farms operating last year that killed an additional 27,444 alligators for sale on the market.
Most of the dead gators end up at processors.
Wood only handles the wild ones.
He said gator meat sales have been stable for years, but to supplement his revenue in tough times he has recently made the leap to iguanas.
South Florida has tens of thousands of the nonnative lizards, the offspring of pets turned loose to reproduce in the wild.
Wood has contracts with several towns and country clubs to capture them. He processes the lizards and sells the meat and hides, just like gator.
"They call it the chicken of the tree. It's very tasty meat," he said, adding that many people from Central and South America eat iguana.
But alligators are still his mainstay.
"It started out as a novelty but a lot of people really enjoy it," Wood said. "It tastes ... kinda like a fishy chicken or a scallop."
The grill sizzles at Harry and the Natives Restaurant up the road in Hobe Sound, where manager Jeff Brown serves up to 30 gator burgers a day. The restaurant also serves gator hash for breakfast and spicy Buffalo gator bites.
"It's actually a real nice flavor and it's much leaner than almost any meat going, just about 2 percent fat," Brown said.
Customer Gregg Lake sat at the restaurant bar recently, preparing to eat his first alligator burger, sandwiched on a bun with lettuce and tomatoes.
He eyed it carefully, grasping it with both hands, took a quick sniff, and chomped.
"Mmmmmm, very good," Lake said, still chewing. "That's fantastic. I know this is gonna sound funny, but it tastes like chicken."
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