'Send more tourists . . . the last ones were delicious'
Hamat Gader, Israel
Israel, which has coped matter-of-factly for decades with periodic incursions of Palestinian guerrillas, is experiencing pricks of panic these days at the prospect of being overrun by American alligators.
The arrival last month by air freight of 120 Florida-bred alligators to take up residence in a newly created alligator farm at the foot of the Golan Heights was initially greeted with an amused shudder by Israelis viewing the beasts on television being uncrated, their jaws taped tight for the trip.
Amusement faded only slightly at the report that one of the reptiles had worked his way out of his crate during the drive from the airport and had fallen onto terra sancta in the Jezreel Valley. The dazed alligator was rounded up with the help of journalists in the press contingent following the trucks.
When it was revealed last week that a second alligator had escaped en route without having been reported missing, there was not a smile in the house.
A truck driver had spotted the reptile in a roadside ditch in the Jordan Valley alive, well, and two weeks hungrier than when he arrived. Workers from the alligator farm quickly rounded it up. They solemnly swore that there were no other alligator at large.
Anyone reassured by this was reduced to shudders again a few days later when a leading zoologist warned of the possibility that the alligators could make their way from their new home to the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) about 10 air miles away.
Giora Ilani, chief zoologist of the Israel Nature Preservation Society, said there was the danger of the alligators escaping into the nearby Yarmuk River and thence to the Jordan and Sea of Galilee.
The 64-square-mile Sea of Galilee, Israel's only freshwater lake, provides half of Israel's water supply and is a major recreational area. The prospect, however remote, of alligators cruising its waters was enough to petrify hotel owners and other recreational interests along its shore.
The director of the alligator farm, Shlomo Ranort, attempted to reassure them. "Our alligators will never reach the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee]," he said. "Why would they want to leave here? They've got warm water, plenty of fish, and first-class living conditions."
In the event some ungrateful alligator did attempt to leave, he would have to pass through eight metal nets, each of them unpassable, Mr. Ranot said.
Furthermore, he said, the animals were docile. "Comparing one to a crocodile is like comparing a pussycat to a tiger." Mr. Ranot did not mention that one of his "pussycats" had bitten a deep gash into the arm of one of the American workmen preparing it for crating from Florida.
The farm is situated at the point where the pre-1967 borders of Israel, Jordan, and Syria met. After the Syrians were driven from the area in the six-day war. Israeli authorities attempted to develop the famous local hot springs at Hamat Gader. But Palestinian guerrillas crossing the Yarmuk from Jordan killed some of the workmen and halted development.
In recent years, the area has been developed as a tourist site. In addition to the mineral baths and alligator farm, archaeological remains of an elaborate Roman and Byzantine bath complex are being restored.
The alligator farm, run by several kibbutzim on the adjacent Golan Heights, opens next month. The operators hope eventually to have several thousand alligators.
Dr. Ilani warned last week that if a single alligator entered the Sea of Galilee there could be uncontrollable public hysteria. "The police and other security authorities would attempt to liquidate it with all available means, and this could lead to environmental destruction." Furthermore, he said, "There can be no sharing of the lake by alligators and human swimmers."
the point was unconsciously rammed home recently by one of the workers showing reporters around the alligator farm. He wore a T-shirt depicting a contented-looking alligator beside a palm tree. "Send me more tourists," says the alligator. "The last ones were delicious."