By Jane Canaway
THE yell rings out across the weedy swamp waters, and echoes through the groves of the moss-covered trees towering out of the ooze.
“Here piggy, piggy, piggy, piggy,” calls the captain of our flat-bottomed boat, which is drawn right up to a bayou’s muddy bank, pitted with hoof marks.
“Here piggy, piggy, piggy, piggy,” he calls again until a quiet rustle in the undergrowth swells to a crashing charge as a herd of about 20 black and white pigs hurtles into the clearing.
The men who run tours deep into the Louisiana swamps are pig whisperers, gator baiters and bird spotters extraordinaire.
They have a secret weapon to lure the wildlife some visitors have travelled halfway around the world to see: marshmallows.
A small alligator jumps for its treat in the swamps of Louisiana. Picture: Jane Canaway
Aww. Alligators seem cute in comparison to Brutus, a saltie who lives near Darwin. Source:News Corp Australia
Yes, impale a large white marshmallow on a long, pointy stick and you have the perfect tool for teaching an alligator to jump.
While Australian croc tour operators spoil local reptiles with fresh meat, in the swamps outside New Orleans the southern fare is sugar.
The wild pigs obviously love it, too, coming right up to the boat so that Captain Anthony is able to hand feed them — although he keeps his fingers safely out of reach.
Both male and female hogs have razor-sharp tusks and they eat like, well, pigs — gobbling down as many marshmallows as they can and chasing away piglets that get too close.
The feral swine are a real problem in America’s wetlands.
One sow and her offspring can produce 250 piglets in four years, and a couple of years after that the numbers are in the thousands. Anthony tells us the herds are descended from Eurasian wild boar, probably crossed with domestic pigs.
The alligators, on the other hand, are barely changed from their prehistoric ancestors, who predate the dinosaurs.
And while their record-breaking jaw strength (scientists believe they could out-snap a T-Rex) has evolved to crush turtle shells, many now scrounge soft, sweet treats from the tour boats that cruise the waterways every day.
An alligator greedily eyes marshmallows while lurking near a tourist boat. Picture: Jane Canaway
Captain Anthony stops the boat and splashes the water with the marshmallow-laden stick — a clear invitation to dine for the prehistoric reptiles — and instinctively an Alligator mississippiensis swims across to check out the menu.
He’s a tease, lifting the stick high out the water to make the alligators jump for the tourists, then flicking it away at the last minute to make the snapper come back a second time. Finally the critter snaps up its treat, and the boatload of visitors breaks out in applause.
Each alpha male gator guards his own patch of river about 2.5 kilometres apart, with a harem of about 20 females, and the guides have named them: Big Al, Bruce, Sydney and Scarface. Captain Anthony repeats his trick with a couple more “floating logs with teeth” before it’s time to head back downstream.
Along the way we pass flooded forests of white oak and black willow, but it’s the termite-resistant bald cypress that adorns many of the heritage buildings in the French Quarter.
Louisiana’s swamps are incredibly beautiful, but full of dangerous beasts. Picture: Jane Canaway
Today’s parade of tour boats barely rates a glance from those living in the riverside homes — some in good repair while others hold out against gravity.
“Anyone can tow in a house boat, tie it up to a tree and live for free without paying property tax,” Anthony says, while fixed homes can be built on privately owned land — but don’t expect any insurance company to cover you.
The golden rule for river living is apparently don’t mess with your neighbour’s catfish lines — and stay indoors after dark, when all the wild beasts are about.
Louisiana and Florida both have about one million wild alligators that can grow up to five metres and live up to 100 years, however they are typically less aggressive than Australian saltwater crocodiles and attacks on humans are rare.
According to Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Alligator program co-ordinator Ricky Flynt, attacks become more likely when humans feed them.
A tour guide coaxes a herd of wild pigs from the dense undergrowth. Picture: Jane Canaway
The alligator (the name comes from early Spanish explorers who called them “el legarto” or “big lizard”) is able to hibernate through cold winters that would kill most crocodiles, but is less tolerant of salt water.
It has a more rounded snout and its bottom teeth are fully covered by its top jaw when its mouth is closed, so it doesn’t have the same toothy ‘grin’ of Aussie crocs.
Luckily for them, however, they share the ability to regrow any teeth that fall out.
No matter how bad their dental hygiene may become on their sugary diet, they can always rely on a new set to come through.
Jane Canaway is a freelance writer. She tweets @janusflytrap.