Last Thursday, I saw a Facebook posting about a guy that had wrangled a big lizard out of the Cooper River using basically his bare hands.
A great photo of Oaklyn's Glenn Hudson appeared shortly after this initial report. It showed him standing before the Hopkins House on South Park Drive in Haddon Township, backlit by a streetlight, and holding this creature firmly around the snout and tail.
From rumor to (ostensible) proof in a matter of minutes. I was able to contact Hudson the next day and got him to tell me the whole story over the phone.
Aside from an enthusiastic and lifelong interest in "underdog animals," as he put it, Hudson was clear about why he went out in the middle of the night to see what might be lurking by the riverbank.
"I was worried if I didn't get it, someone would view it as a threat," he said.
Hudson promised to get me some photographs he'd taken that I could use to accompany the story, but as deadlines approached, he invited me over to his home to capture my own.
When I got there, he brought the alligator out—calling it a caiman at the time—and deposited it into a high-sided plastic washtub. There sat the beast in a defensive posture, none too happy to be gawked at, quietly hissing every so often just to warn me to keep my distance.
I asked how old it was. Hudson told me he thought it was immature because he'd heard it making a call he judged was intended for its mother. He handled it calmly, with sure movements, never releasing his grip around its neck and the base of its tail.
As we were taking a few shots, two elementary-school-aged children from the neighborhood caught notice and came over to see. Their dad trailed a step or two behind them. Hudson chatted with them, answering questions, and even offered the gator's belly for a rub. They looked on, excited, for a few minutes, and then left, with a reminder to wash their hands because the animal could be carrying bacteria.
And that was about the most dangerous thing it could have done. Hudson kept it at his home for another day-and-a-half before a go-between from a Maryland zoo met with him to pick it up.
There was no lurking monster on the playground, no frightened children or distrught parents, as the Courier-Post reported.
There was no scary encounter, no unsettling vision of sea monster sculptures coming to life, as ABC said.
There was no danger that pets or kids could wind up being a snack for this animal, as Fox claimed. (Ed. note: added 1:15 Thursday, 6/7/12)
There was no risk to anyone visiting the park by land or water, despite our freeholders' fears.
In fact, in the past 13 years there have only been 14 total encounters with exotic animals in the state of New Jersey. Aside from one case in Georgia, the only state in the country in which anyone has been killed by an alligator since the 1970s is Florida.
I got a couple of things wrong in my initial reporting of the story. One, it was an alligator, not a caiman. Two, it was headed for the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo, not the Maryland Reptile Sanctuary (as a very confused program director e-mailed me today to ask).
Those were errors, to be sure—but they weren't on the order of openly questioning public safety where no immediate danger existed.
I realize that without having seen something in person, it's important to ask for impressions from people at the scene of an event. But shaping any narrative to present a false sense of a threat, especially in an encounter with a wild animal, isn't necessary, accurate or responsible reporting.
Taking that tack only validates Hudson's initial approach to the whole thing: get there quickly and calm things down before someone less sensible overreacts.