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On Second Thought

Crocodile tears for bagged gator

Maryellen Mara-Christian, with husband Mark Christian, proudly displays her recent catch: a 13-foot-6-inch alligator. Maryellen Mara-Christian, with husband Mark Christian, proudly displays her recent catch: a 13-foot-6-inch alligator. (Photo Courtesy Maryellen Mara-Christian)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
October 24, 2010

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FITCHBURG — More than a month after Maryellen Mara-Christian drove down to South Carolina and bagged a 1,025-pound alligator — a lumbering behemoth that measured 13 feet 6 inches from snout to tail — postcards and letters still trickle in to the farmhouse that she shares with her husband here on some 40 acres of forest and ponds.

“People can have their opinions, that doesn’t bother me,’’ noted Mara-Christian, sipping a cup of coffee at her kitchen table and showing a visitor pictures of her memorable catch on Sept. 15. “It’s just sad that they feel they have to send me nasty things.’’

Such as the postcard, the one featuring a picture of William Jefferson Clinton, nose a la Pinocchio, with the sender telling Mara-Christian, “It will be interesting to hear you explain to your Maker the reason. You and yours have so much to be forgiven for. Shame on you.’’ No signature.

Then there was that phone call to her home.

“An older gentleman who said he was from the Boston area,’’ recalled Mara-Christian.

She let her husband, longtime Fitchburg firefighter Mark Christian, handle that one. The caller felt it necessary to make clear his position on the hunting and killing of animals, one the polar opposite of the opinion she shares with her husband.

“That call wasn’t so bad, really,’’ said Mara-Christian, 48, whose passion for hunting and fishing began in her late 20s, somewhat to the bewilderment of her father, Vincent J. Mara, who was president of Fitchburg State College for two decades. “Mark talked with him. They both said what they had to say . . . and the call just sort of ended.’’

A letter to the editor of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, published Oct. 11, carried a headline containing the words, “senseless killing.’’ Mara-Christian wasn’t named, but the ire of the author clearly was aimed at her.

“I am not sure why it has brought such hatred,’’ mused Mara-Christian, her home chock-full of stuffed animals and mounted heads, including bears, wild boar, turkeys, foxes, even a bobcat. “They look at me as such a terrible person, because I shot an alligator. Well, yeah, I was looking for an alligator and I shot one.’’

All of it in complete compliance with South Carolina’s fish-and-wildlife regulations. Mara-Christian obtained one of the 1,000 alligator hunting licenses granted by the state this year, paid the fees (upward of $800, including her husband’s required tariff as an aide in the hunt) and then went after her prey with a hired local guide.

Her boat was outfitted with all the necessary gear — fishing line, harpoons, .22 caliber hand gun, and knife — and it took all of that to subdue the alligator during a struggle that she estimates lasted approximately two hours.

“When it was over, I was shaking — just shaking and shaking,’’ recalled Mara-Christian, a petite 5-5 and approximately 120 pounds. “That’s just the way it is in this kind of a hunt. There’s so much commotion going on and the animal’s so big — bigger than any of us first realized — that, for me, shaking is just that release when it’s over.’’

In short order, local TV in South Carolina ran an account of the diminutive Mara-Christian’s big catch. The beast, estimated by some to be 65 years old, measured a gargantuan 79 inches around its middle. It wasn’t until she helped bring the alligator ashore and it was hoisted up by a bucket truck, said Mara-Christian, that she finally had a full sense of its size.

“Not until I saw his girth and his jowls,’’ she recalled, popping up a picture of the animal on her laptop. “That’s when I felt, ‘Holy cow, that’s a huge alligator!’ It was just unbelievable.’’

It was another day or two before she began to get a full sense of the catch. Videotape from the local TV station went viral, by which time she and her husband were on their drive back to New England. As for the alligator, he was left with a taxidermist in South Carolina, with Maryellen and Mark carrying back its edible meat in a cooler.

Among the first to call was CBS News, asking if the couple could pull into D.C. for the night, stay in a hotel, then appear the following day on the network’s morning show.

“That was all kind of crazy,’’ recalled Mara-Christian. “Mark doesn’t drive in the city. We’re driving all around, lost, and finally, we get to the Fairmont, and I’m in shorts and flip-flops. We parked in front and I said to the doorman [while lifting up the cooler], ‘We have to get this into the hotel — it’s our meat!’ ’’

For the record: According to Mara-Christian, alligator meat is usually deep fried (gator bites, popular in the South) and has the texture of a very chewy calamari. The alligator she bagged, though huge, yielded only 40 pounds of edible meat, in part because of its age and size. Its large amount of fat, she said, marbleized and made rancid other meaty areas of the animal that normally could have been harvested.

When she arrived home, most of Boston’s TV and cable stations either made their way to her door or interviewed her over the phone. “Inside Edition’’ was interested, she said, until learning that no videotape of the catch existed. What’s a story without video?

Boston’s two daily newspapers ran accounts of her big catch. In each case, reader comments posted with the online version of the stories were predominantly, and sometimes rudely and aggressively, against Mara-Christian.

“People just don’t get it,’’ she said. “It’s not about the killing.’’

Mara-Christian’s point is that states institute such hunts for the sake of controlling animal population, keeping numbers down to healthy, sustainable levels. Vermont, as an example, on Thursday wrapped up its moose hunting season, one that was instituted some 20 years ago when the state’s fish and wildlife officials feared that overpopulation left the entire herd exposed to disease and/or starvation.

“Mother Nature is beautiful,’’ said Mara-Christian, who can wax nearly poetic about a full day spent in a deer blind, even if her only “catch’’ that day is to witness a pileated woodpecker drill with hydraulic precision into the side of a tree. “But she can also be the cruelest.’’

For the most part, said Mara-Christian, the buzz around her big catch has dissipated. After nearly a quarter-century in banking as a marketing manager, she was laid off before Memorial Day.

“Maybe I’ll work again, not sure,’’ she said. “I like to say that I’m practicing retirement.’’

Meanwhile, she and her husband, who has 31 years with the Fitchburg Fire Department, spend their days between here and Cape Cod, each of them with fishing rods, hunting bows, and rifles always within reach. Mark Christian is also a master fishing and hunting guide in Maine.

The outdoors is not just their recreation, but their way of life. Witness the deer antlers nailed to the rafters of their family room, as well as the fully mounted black bear, standing approximately 5 feet tall, keeping guard in a second-floor room that looks like a page torn from “Field & Stream.’’

One giant alligator down, the next adventure awaits Mara-Christian.

“Snakes!’’ she said, her eyes opening wide. “I want to go after big snakes in the Everglades.’’

For a woman who has survived the snake pit of reader mail and public opinion, that trip should be the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.