Saturday, March 29, 2008

Miami's one of a kind

Left to right: Bruce Bednar, Felix Velez, Hardwick and Joe Wasilewski.

August 1989...the dog days of the summer have Miami in their grip.

I'm covering workouts at Miami Dolphins' training camp at St Thomas University for the Associated Press; bored out of my skull.

All of sudden my beeper goes off. I call the number and a then unknown Miami animal trapper named Todd Hardwick answers and tells me he that's he's just caught a very large reticulated python in Ft. Lauderdale and he's on his way back to Miami with the slithery critter.

Seems this snake was living under the home of an old couple who just happened to live next door to a state park. Whenever the snake would get hungry it would meander on over to the park and snack on a racoon or possum or whatever mammal happened to be unlucky enough to be passing by. And then it would retreat back under the house.

They called Hardwick to evict the beast.

Hardwick theorized that the snake was a pet that the owner let loose when it became too big to handle.

I'd just started talking to Hardwick with the idea of doing a picture story on him; a guy who makes his living in urban Miami trapping animals of all sorts.

Earlier that day he'd told me that he was going up to capture this reptile and that it was huge. A little unbelieving I told him to call me when he got it.

Now he was on his way to a friend's home off the Tamiamai Trail near FIU where he would show it to me.

I hurried down and what I saw amazed me. Hardwick and three other men struggled to pull the muscular 20 ft. long reptile from its cage.

They uncoiled the snake which weighed over 200 pounds and held it up as I snapped picture after picture.

I hurried back to the AP offices and processed my color film and made black and white and color prints for transmission on the wire.

The Sun-Sentinel in Ft Lauderdale was especially anxious to get the color photo for their front page because even though the capture happened in their back yard they didn't have a photographer there.

The pictures moved on the "A-wire" and ended up being used in virtually every newspaper in the world.

And the capture put Hardwick on the map.

In the intervening 18 years Hardwick has become something of a living, believable urban legend making regular appearances every summer on TV news tangling with some very big lizards!. He's a genuine Miami character who's fearless and peerless.

He earns his bread and butter trapping racoons and possums for $75 a piece in neighborhoods like Coral Gables and Pinecrest.

But he gets the ink and airtime when he shows up in those same suburban backyards to trap alligators that've lost their way. The adventure usually begins when a frantic homeowner wakes up one morning to find a 'gator sunning itself on their back yard canal bank.

He arrives to trap the errant beast with TV crews and live trucks in tow and they dutifully document all the action and beam it back for the first block of "The Six." TV reporters have dubbed him "The Walking Sound Bite."

Print reporters love him because whatever story they do on him almost writes itself.

And people who don't live in Miami also recognize him; he's become a staple of cable TV programming. He's appeared on just about every cable channel with animal-themed documentaries: Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel.

If you're a film crew and you're doing an animal piece in Miami you gotta get Todd for a segment.

And the picture I shot that day has sold over and over and over. For some reason all of the TV footage shot that day is no longer available. At least that's what the National Geographic channel told me last year when they called to license my photo for a piece they were doing on invader species in the Everglades.

And another cable channel called just yesterday. "Would you happen to have that picture of Todd Hardwick with the big python he caught 18 years ago?"

"Why yes I do."


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