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FL Press: Still in MoJo's grip (Don Goodman)

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Posted by W von Papinešu on May 05, 2003 at 07:06:57:

ST PETERSBURG TIMES (Florida) 05 May 03 Still in MoJo's grip - In his worst moments, Don Goodman feels the crush of pain from when the big gator took his arm. Yet, he says, I miss MoJo. (Jeff Klinkenberg)
Gainesville: Don Goodman, who still loves alligators, used to be right-handed. Now he does everything with his left. He buttons his shirt and zips his pants, steers his car and even opens a can of peaches one-handed. He can write a letter, shave his beard and tie his shoes.
The director of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, he also has learned to tend plants without much of a struggle. When he leads a tour at his lush 62-acre park, one arm is perfect for pointing out the splendid palms and water lilies the size of magic carpets.
Pausing at a pond, he gestures with his remaining limb.
"That's where MoJo used to bask on the bank," he says. MoJo was the alligator that crawled over from a nearby lake last summer and took up residence. "When a gator is about 6 feet long, it's a lizard. When an alligator grows larger, when it really bulks up, it's a dragon. MoJo was about 12 feet long. He was a dragon."
MoJo quickly ate Kanapaha's other alligators. Always hungry, he went on to prey upon aquatic turtles. When he seized a heavy turtle in those massive jaws, the crunch echoed throughout the park.
"You know how alligators will roar at other alligators? MoJo was so dominant that when it thundered, he'd roar back at the thunder."
Biding his time
When he saunters along the pond, Goodman automatically looks for MoJo. "In a strange way," he says, "I miss him. He was magnificent."
MoJo had a crooked back. At first, park employees nicknamed him Quasimodo after the Hunchback of Notre Dame. That was shortened to MoDo and finally to MoJo. If an alligator can be a celebrity, MoJo was. For a few months, anyway, he probably was the most photographed alligator in the state. He'd lie on the bank, motionless for hours, seemingly oblivious to the hundreds of amateur photographers who crept near. He lay so still many were sure he was a fake.
But he wasn't. He was just biding his time. Usually after dark he'd slither into the pond and look for something to eat. Big alligators have hearty appetites.
Fortunately, even big alligators pose little danger to humans. After all, millions of Floridians swim in lakes, rivers and springs every summer without harm. In a typical year, only 15 people or so are bitten. Almost all survive to swim another day.
There are fatalities, of course, one about every two years. Almost without exception it's a large, hungry alligator that is blamed. Usually the victim has gone swimming, in murky water, far from shore, often at dusk or after dark. The alligator submerges, cruises along the bottom and surfaces under the swimmer, jaws agape. The alligator drowns the swimmer before tearing him or her into bite-sized pieces.
Goodman knows all this, for a number of reasons that include a lifelong interest in reptiles. He was born 59 years ago in Missouri, not a good state for alligators, but a wonderful place for snakes. He collected rat snakes and king snakes and even had a few copperheads and rattlers. His parents balked at letting him have an alligator, but otherwise encouraged his passion. Eventually he got his doctorate at the University of Florida, studying under the famous herpetologist Archie Carr.
He also met his wife, Jordan, at UF. She was a herp woman. Their idea of a perfect date was to go out and catch barking tree frogs by hand. They'd place the little frogs on the steering wheel and head for the nearest Steak n Shake. As the waitress leaned in to take their order, they'd poke the rear ends of the frogs, which would begin singing their sad songs in unison.
Neither of them stuck with herpetology. Jordan went on to become a nurse and Don followed his new passion for growing things into establishing the botanical garden, which he opened to the public in 1978. Yet part of him never stopped loving reptiles. When MoJo showed up, he was thrilled. At last he had a pet alligator.
Initially, Jordon enjoyed watching MoJo too. But she lost her enthusiasm.
"He's just too big to have around," she told her husband. "He could be dangerous. Get rid of him."
Don put off a decision.
Now he says "I have to admire my wife's discipline. She has exercised Herculean self control by not telling me "I told you so."'
He gets his hands dirty
Goodman has curly red hair, a moustache and a wiry build. He is not only the founder of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, but an enthusiastic manual laborer at the park. It keeps him in shape. Unlike a lot of bosses, who get stuck in the office doing paperwork, Goodman enjoys getting his hands dirty.
Last Sept. 23 was no exception. He had been watching with dismay as algae grew along the bottom of the main pond. As it broke loose and floated to the surface it became an eyesore in the otherwise stunning park.
"I'm a swamper," Goodman tells people. He decided to clear the pond of algae himself. The pond must be a half-acre wide or so. It was going to be an all-day job.
It was hot, so he got an early start, though he didn't wade into the water right away. First he looked for MoJo.
"When Mojo was basking on the bank, I never worried," Goodman says. MoJo was asleep, several hundred feet away from the algae bloom. Goodman entered the pond with confidence.
For two hours he cleared algae while wading in thigh-deep water. It was hard work and Goodman worked up an appetite. About noon he broke for lunch.
He returned about 1:30. He stepped into the pond once more.
"My mistake," he says. "I should have checked for MoJo first."
While Goodman was eating lunch, MoJo awakened. He crept along the bank several hundred feet and entered the pond exactly where Goodman had been cleaning. In the turbid water he lay on the bottom, completely submerged.
Goodman slowly worked his way toward him.
"It's amazing how a few seconds can change your life," he says now. "That's all it took. One second you're in the water doing what you love. The next second I'm stumbling out of the pond with half my arm gone."
Suddenly, a swirl of water
Obviously, it is no fun to talk about a catastrophe. But Goodman is a scientist who values cool fact and doesn't mind talking about what it's like to be attacked by an alligator.
"I never saw him," he says. "He must have seen the shadow of my arm and just reacted. Suddenly, there he was, in front of me in a big swirl of water. He grabbed my right arm just below the elbow so fast I wasn't immediately aware we were attached."
Telling the story, Goodman sits in a restaurant eating lunch. He picks at his chicken with his good left arm. Around him, other patrons go about their business. Fortunately, he talks in a low voice. He won't spoil any appetites.
"Usually, when an alligator latches on to a person, it's a mistake. Once you raise heck, bang him on the nose, he lets go. You end up with a few bite marks and a story to tell. Those are the rules of engagement; it's unfortunate that alligators sometimes behave irresponsibly. MoJo was so large he didn't care."
He sips iced tea.
"He pulled me to my knees. I didn't feel pain at all. I was all adrenaline. I got back on my feet and yelled, "Help! Alligator!' The second time he jerked me with great force completely under water and I swallowed a mouthful. I thought I might die.
"I somehow struggled to my feet once again. MoJo started spinning. That's what a big alligator does. It spins, drowns the prey, tears it apart. He was spinning but I wasn't. That's when I knew. I looked at my arm. It was attached to MoJo by a little rope of flesh. I still had complete clarity of mind. I realized that it was either part of me or all of me. I was going to have to give him my arm. I backed away and broke that rope of tissue and waded out of the pond."
A park employee, planting a butterfly garden, sped over in a golf cart to help. As she drove, Goodman worked on a tourniquet. At the office, as she called 911, he drove the cart into the parking lot and waited for paramedics.
"Can I do something to make you more comfortable?" the paramedic asked. By now Goodman was feeling a burning, searing pain.
"Well," he said, "there's a bottle of Tylenol on my desk."
The ultimate insult
While the ambulance raced for the hospital, Shands at the University of Florida, state trappers arrived and killed MoJo. They slit his stomach and removed Goodman's arm. But it was too mangled to be reattached.
He was home in three days. Three weeks later he returned to work, but still felt tired. The fatigue has mostly disappeared now. He's back at the park, working in the gardens, even wading in the pond despite the presence of a few small alligators. Well-wishers want to shake hands. He offers them his left.
He wears a prosthesis on the right. It's a high-tech model that almost looks alive. When he flexes his bicep, the hand opens. When he contracts the tricep, the hand closes. "I can hold a glass in my hand, but not a Styrofoam cup. I'll crush a cup. There's no sensitivity."
He is sure he will adjust in time, though for now he misses some of the simplest things. "It's very strange to clap," he says. "Clapping isn't the same."
He feels pain. He has tried hypnosis and acupuncture, but the pain persists. Now he sees a neurologist at the University of Florida for pain management. Dr. William Baker has prescribed a variety of medicines to help.
"Phantom pain is difficult," Baker tells Goodman in the examining room at the clinic. "We don't know much about it, frankly. Your brain still thinks your arm is there. The pain probably will go away in time, but we don't know for sure."
Goodman smiles wanly. "It's the ultimate insult," he says. "I lose my arm, and the arm that isn't there still hurts."
The medication helps him endure the worst moments, when he feels a crushing pain - almost like something large and strong has hold of him by the arm.
"In my mind," Goodman says, "I guess MoJo still has me."
Ever the scientist
The Goodmans live minutes from the park. They have an outdoor swimming pool in their back yard. On a camp night, the pool collects aquatic vertebrates that interest them. One morning they harvested a peninsula newt from the pool and dropped it in their indoor aquarium for further study.
Within minutes the newt got too close to a hungry African clawed frog. The frog bit off the front left leg of the newt.
Goodman has been fascinated watching the wounded newt generate a new limb.
"I'm envious," he says. "It kind of gives me hope."
- The Internet address for Kanapaha Botanical Gardens is

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