Published: October 2004
Joel K. Bourne, Jr.

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

It’s hard to pick a best experience in a place like Louisiana, where—if you love marshes, water, and wildlife—every day you wake up in paradise. But the thing I most enjoyed was the sincere and abounding hospitality of the Louisiana people and their enviable philosophy of life, where family, friends, fun, and food rank at the top of their priority list and career and material possessions rank somewhere on down the scale.

This hospitality was particularly evident at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, where the staff bent over backwards to show me the beauty of a relatively unscathed marsh. It was also on display the day I spent with the staff of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, which began with a policy meeting and ended at a tumble down camp in the bayou, picking steamed crabs, drinking beer, and talking about the beauty and problems of coastal Louisiana while a six-foot (two-meter) alligator lingered in the water nearby. A hush fell over the cypress swamp as the sun set. Then the crickets, cicadas, and bullfrogs began their chorus, and all seemed right with the world.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

One evening I strolled down to the French Quarter for some of New Orleans’ renowned Creole cuisine. I followed my nose, and in no time it led me to a corner spot with the doors and windows flung open and ceiling fans turning slowly in the sultry night. A large lady in an electric green dress was crooning “Summertime” from behind a battered grand piano, so I grabbed a table nearby and ordered a beer and the house special: something that consisted mostly of oysters and butter.

I was halfway through the beer when I heard scratching along the brick wall behind me. I turned in time to see a football-size rat take a left at the piano lady, run to the middle of the dance floor, do a quick two-step, and then head for the far wall. I expected an uproar, a fire drill, some sort of mass exodus. Nobody said a thing. I don’t know if I was the only one who noticed or the only one who cared, but I made up my mind to have a word with the management. Then the oysters arrived in all their garlic-buttery goodness, and somehow it just didn’t seem important anymore. I ordered another beer and decided, what the heck, rats have to eat too.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I was waiting to interview the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge manager Guthrie Perry when two interns ran into the office yelling, “Big Boy’s out! Big Boy’s out!” This, I took it, was a most auspicious event. We hopped into what looked like a six-wheeled golf cart and drove to a nearby patch of swamp. There, behind a rusted hog-wire fence, was the biggest alligator I’d ever seen. He was 13 or 14 feet (four meters) long, a leftover from the state’s captive breeding program in the 1980s. His massive jaws were open, jagged teeth in clear view. And he looked, well, hungry.

The girls used the six-wheeled golf cart to feed him, mostly frozen nutria from the state’s nutria control program. Big Boy obviously associated the golf cart with food and was waiting expectantly. Suddenly I realized we hadn’t brought any nutria with us. They assured me that Big Boy had never tried to escape from his muddy enclosure. But I didn’t like the way he was looking at me, as if I was the biggest nutria he’d ever seen. As we backed away slowly and hopped into the cart, Big Boy glared, clamped his jaws shut, and sunk back into the mire, perhaps savoring the thought of a six-foot-tall (two-meter-tall) nutria with a notebook.