Column: How Ali the alligator helped get the power on after a hurricane

Ali, the alligator.
Ali, the alligator.

Hurricane season started less than a week ago, and already we have a named storm.

The start of the season reminds me of a series of hurricanes in south Alabama that extended the time my family spent with an unusual – even illegal – pet.

Hurricane Ivan swept in near Gulf Shores, Ala., in September 2004 with winds of about 130 mph that left thousands without power. A day or so later, my mother, Binky Bell, asked the man working on the power lines from a big orange truck with Illinois plates when the electricity would return.

There was a blown transformer, the man said, and it will likely take a week, probably more.

Then he spotted Ali.

“Oh,” he said. “Is that an alligator?”

Why, yes, my mother said. Her husband and my stepfather, Bobby Bell, would be home to feed him in a bit, she said.

“Can I stay and watch that?” the man said, adding, “Could I tell the other trucks about it?”

Later that night, a dozen orange trucks were parked in Mom and Bobby’s pecan grove in Baldwin County, Ala., which sits between Mobile and Pensacola, Fla.

Mom and Bobby’s power was restored within two days.

Let’s be clear. Feeding alligators in Alabama is against the law because it encourages them to approach humans. My mother pleaded with Bobby, now 80, not to keep the alligator. My siblings and I also made a case. But you try talking a retired farmer and stone-and-gravel business owner out of something he is determined to do, and let me know how it works out.

Bobby meets Ali

Bobby first spotted Ali in the spring of 2000 in the quarter-acre pond that sits about 50 yards from their ranch-style home.

Ali was about a foot long, Bobby said, trying to reach a dragonfly on a tall piece of grass.

At first Bobby fed Ali half a hotdog from a string attached to a stick.

“After a couple of weeks, he would hear me, or I would start calling and he would come to me,” Bobby said. “And that is what started a beautiful relationship with me and Ali.”

Ali’s diet later expanded to chicken quarters and blackbirds.

In general, Bobby has a soft spot for most of the creatures that land on his farm.

His home is filled with a revolving pack of stout former stray dogs. The squirrels feast from feeders poised on pecan trees. Even the lizards are portly, as Bobby kills flies and feeds the small reptiles that patronize his back patio.

And Bobby was fascinated by Ali. His eyes. His glide. His dormant cycle.

“I know Ali depended on food, but there were times when he wasn’t hungry that I was close to him,” Bobby said. “He wouldn’t come lick my face. He would lay there, and I would talk to him.”

Fed in captivity, alligators grow about a foot a year. By 2004, Ali was about four feet long. Bobby’s strategy was to keep him well-fed and happy, but his size started to make everyone else nervous.

So Bobby asked a state conservation enforcement officer to come pick him up. The officer said Ali would be destroyed – protocol after an alligator is acquainted with people. “Bobby started to cry,” Mom said.

Seeking a home

Bobby hoped to get Ali a spot at the zoo in Gulf Shores. That was no longer an option after the zoo flooded and a 12-foot alligator named Chunky escaped during Hurricane Ivan. A zoo representative told Bobby that it just wasn’t a good time to take another alligator following the high-profile five-day hunt for Chunky.

About a year later, Bobby thought he had found Ali a home at an alligator farm in the area. Then Hurricane Katrina’s floods freed many of the alligators, which started showing up in people’s swimming pools. The owner of that farm indicated he was too busy dealing with the storm’s aftermath to worry about another alligator.

Finally, in April 2008, Bobby landed Ali a forever home at another alligator farm.

It took three visits before they pulled Ali from the pond. Finally, two men baited him with chicken and pulled him out using long poles with nooses at the end. They taped his mouth closed, put a towel over his head and lifted him into the bed of a pickup truck. They covered Ali with a tarp and drove away – chased by the dogs that Ali would have inevitably harmed.

We were all relieved. Bobby’s heart was broken.

When we visited Ali, Bobby said he recognized him among the dozens of alligators, but we couldn’t tell the difference.

“I missed him,” Bobby said. “I really, really missed him bad.”

In the days following Hurricane Ivan, Mom and Bobby continued to feed the power men while they were working in the area. Bobby adjusted Ali’s feeding schedule so they could have a show with their lunch.

My mom jokes that the men returned to Illinois with “harrowing tales” about people in Alabama and their alligators.

“They keep them in the pond as pets!”

Virginia Bridges is a business reporter for The News & Observer.