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Guess what they found in record-setting Stokes Gator

*(By Jeff Dute | jdute@al.com – Courtesy of AL.com – http://www.al.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2014/08/guess_what_they_found_in_recor.html)

AUTAUGAVILLE, Alabama — Ken Owens has skinned and mounted an untold number of wild animals at his Autaugaville taxidermy shop. This week, he put his knife to what is believed to be a world-record alligator killed on the Alabama River during this year’s state gator hunt.

Owens said that when he cut open the gator’s stomach, he saw a pair of ears. He pulled on them, and out came the carcass of a fully intact, yet deteriorated, adult female deer.

The gator had caught it and gulped it down whole.

Watch the Stokes alligator taxidermist at work Watch the Stokes alligator taxidermist at work in Autaugaville, Ala.

Owens used the doe’s lower jawbone to age it at about 3 years old. An average mature doe from Wilcox County will weigh in the neighborhood of 115 pounds.

“I always thought that once an alligator killed something that it ate it a piece at a time,” Owens said. “I can’t imagine how it got ahold of that adult deer and ate it in one piece like that. It’s unbelievable.”

The doe was one of the last meals consumed by the 15-foot, 1,011.5-pound alligator killed by Mandy Stokes and her crew on Saturday, Aug. 16. The huge gator is being preserved by Owens and ultimately will be put on public display.

Owens said all of the deer’s hair was gone and some of the meat, though much of the cartilage and the hooves were still intact.

After seeing what was inside the Stokes Gator, Owens said he regrets not doing the same thing when he also did a full-body mount on the previous state record caught in August 2011 by Keith Fancher and crew that went 14 feet, 2 inches and weighed 838 pounds.

Owens, who is a certified scorer for Safari Club International and measured the Stokes Gator for world-record consideration, opened the alligator’s stomach at the request of biologists curious about what an animal of such dimensions eats.

He figures the gator had swallowed the deer within the week prior to the time Mandy Stokes, her husband John Stokes, brother-in-law Kevin Jenkins and his children Savannah, 16, and Parker, 14, encountered it at the mouth of Mill Creek late Friday night.

After a harrowing five-hour fight, Mandy Stokes dispatched it with a shotgun at 5 o’clock Saturday morning.

Dr. Kent Vliet, a noted reptilian biologist and coordinator of laboratories at the University of Florida said, while alligators most often do tear larger prey into pieces to fit in their mouths, the Stokes Gator was certainly big enough to get the doe down in one bite.

From a scientific standpoint, Vliet was even more amazed that Owens also found two complete squirrel carcasses with some fur still attached.

“I’ve looked at the stomach contents of a lot of alligators and have never seen a squirrel in any of them,” said Vliet, who’s done research on the reptiles for 30 years. “I don’t even know how a gator that big would go about catching one. Maybe they fell into the water during a storm or something.”

He said alligators have the strongest stomach acid in the animal kingdom. The acid is so strong that it can begin burning a human hand within a minute or so of contact.

“An alligator’s default setting is to assume something is food and they have to convince themselves not to eat it.” — Dr. Kent Vliet

“In my experience, the hair and some of the skin would have been gone on that deer within the first 36 hours. It probably caught the squirrels within the previous 24 hours,” Vliet said. “What you had here was a big alligator that was warm and really cranked up and running efficiently. Even though that deer would have provided enough energy for it to survive for two years, it just couldn’t pass up those squirrels.”

Owens also found a collection of bones from some sort of water bird such as a duck, skull plates from other deer unlucky enough to have crossed the reptile’s path, good-size rocks, teeth and an unexpected amount of greenery.

A couple of the molars most likely once resided in the mouth of a small cow.

Vliet said there are many instances in scientific literature that describe larger alligators taking small cows and calves.

When informed of what Owens found, John Stokes said, “You know what, we heard cows mooing that night and we couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.”

The rocks are intentionally eaten, Vliet said. They eventually settle in an area of an alligator’s stomach that acts very similar to a chicken’s gizzard.

“The chicken gizzard crushes the food before it’s swallowed, where in the alligator and other crocodilians, they can contract this area of the stomach and the rocks help to grind up food after it’s been swallowed,” he said.

Much of the greenery Owens found likely got there incidentally, but there is some evidence to suggest that crocodilians will purposely eat fruits and grasses — and anything else that might be food.

“An alligator’s default setting is to assume something is food and they have to convince themselves not to eat it,” he said.

It took Owens right at 2.5 hours to remove the alligator’s skin and head so it could be prepared for shipping to a tannery. The full mount probably won’t be complete until early spring because he gets so busy processing and mounting deer during the fall and winter months.

It rendered a couple hundred pounds of meat, mostly from the tail and jowls. The Stokes family is planning to keep some for themselves and donate a portion to local churches near their Thomaston home that host annual wild game banquets.

Despite his years in the taxidermy business, it was the first potential world record animal Owens had ever skinned.
“I’ve done a few SCI Gold Medal deer and such, but this is the first as far as a potential world record goes,” he said.

Owens said he wasn’t sure how long after SCI receives the official score sheet will a decision be made on the Stokes Gator. An SCI representative estimated it could take as long as 45 days from the time the score sheet is received to confirm the record.

“They do a pretty thorough investigation to confirm the weight and the measurements, so it could be a while,” he said.

The current world record, a 14-foot, 8-inch, 880-pound alligator pulled from the Chalk Creek near Lufkin, Texas, in 2008, was just declared the world record in June of this year.

Before the Stokes Gator has a shot at being named the world record, it has to remain the biggest at the end of three more nights of gator hunting in the west-central zone where it was killed, plus the southwest and southeast zones.