Purtill had just joined the Los Angeles Times to cover science and behavior, and didn’t know if editors would embrace her quirky pitch. (On her website, she describes her approach as “Paying attention and writing things down.”) But she won their full support, and dove into interviews and research with the thoroughness needed on her beat. The result was a funny and surprisingly informative story about the city’s history with a wily alligator named Reggie.
In 2005, Reggie was released into L.A.’s Lake Machado when he outgrew pethood. (“The lake was the size of 15 Costcos. Food was abundant.”) Once his presence was discovered, he became a regular draw for curious crowds and reptile experts who would gather, often with picnic baskets in tow, in hopes of a sighting. Or, as Purtill writes:
… a teenage Reggie crawled out of the water for a sunbath, and a city lost its mind.
For two years, he eluded capture until he was corralled in 2007. So popular had he become that local TV stations provided live coverage of his transport to the zoo.
Reggie’s story doesn’t end there. The last 15 years have included a a brief escape from his zoo enclosure, a romantic relationship gone wrong and another gone right — or at least companionably. Purtill captures it all in part celebrity profile, part nature study, part outlaw drama, all pinned to the anniversary of Reggie’s arrival at the zoo.
“The 15th anniversary of a rogue alligator’s capture is, clearly, a non-event,” Purtill told me. “But it was enough of a peg for me to pitch a story looking back at this weird chapter in L.A. history, which I thought would be enormously fun to write. I love what animal stories tell us about the people around them.”
Purtill finds a humorous voice to use throughout — as an example, she writes:
What Reggie makes of his unusual life story is a mystery. An alligator brain is the size of a peanut.
Or, when Reggie’s first owners decide to leave him to fend for himself in the wilds of Los Angeles:
Alligators, though, are nothing if not survivors.
That sets up a quick bit of history, in which Purtill informs us that crocodile-type reptiles roamed with the dinosaurs some 95 million years ago. Reggie’s crowd, the American alligator hasn’t changed in the last eight million years:
…, as if it had simply opted out of a evolution.
But the story is more than a string of punchlines. Purtill, who joined the Los Angeles Times this past April after writing for The New York Times, The New Yorker and Time, weaves chronology, humor and insight in a story that carries the readers into a who-knew chapter the city’s can’t-make-it-up past.
A few key lessons stand out from an email conversation with Purtill about her story, followed by a fuller Q&A:
Use humor (but pick your spots)
Purtill likes to deploy humor, as long as the tone fits with the subject. In profile of Reggie, she wields the timing of a stand-up comic.
“If humor works at all on the page, it’s at least as much about identifying the appropriate moment as it is about the construction of a phrase or sentence or scene. If humor is a distraction, or dilutes the accuracy of the reporting or demeans its subject, it doesn’t serve readers or the writing. But when the timing is right, it can be a really good way to enhance the mood of a piece and underscore what you want a reader to get from it. So much of life is not funny at all. But some of it absolutely is.”
Get on scene (as much as you can)
Purtill wasn’t able to get quite as close to Reggie as she’d hoped: “For very understandable reasons, zoo officials are very choosy about who gets close to their carnivores.” But she said it was crucial to observe the famous gator’s world for herself.
“For a story like this you definitely want that sensory detail: the hissing sound Reggie makes when someone gets too close to his companion Tina, the things kids say when they’re pressed up against the fence, how slow alligators walk and the sheer amount of time they spend standing still, doing what looks like nothing.”
Have a plan (but be willing to change)
While Purtill and her editors decided on a humorous tone early, the planned-on format, didn’t pan out. Purtill nimbly changed direction.
“Originally I thought about doing an oral history of Reggie’s public life. The Ringer and New York Magazine do these really well. That fell apart fairly quickly during the writing of the first draft. To do it right you need voices from every angle of the story, and there were some key perspectives I just did not have: bystanders who were part of the carnival atmosphere around the lake, parks-and-rec employees called up from their normal municipal duties to wrangle a reptile. A newspaper also doesn’t have the space to let multiple people speak in full paragraphs. Once I let that go, the structure came together much more easily.”
The complete Q-and-A with Purtill is has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Please share how this story came about, and the timeline for reporting and writing it.
My youngest child is a huge fan of the L.A. Zoo and we’ve made many trips there since moving to Los Angeles. Reggie and Tina are right near the entrance and their enclosure is always one of our first stops. While my son looked at the alligators I read the zoo’s signs about Reggie’s colorful history.
I started thinking about what it must have been like to report the Reggie story when it was happening. Breaking news is almost always horrific: shootings, wildfires, devastating losses of all kinds. But a day when an alligator is loose in Los Angeles and a humble reptile keeper comes to the rescue and no one gets hurt and everything ends well? That’s a good day. I went home and looked up the dates and realized it would soon be 15 years to the day when Reggie was retrieved and brought to the zoo. It was enough of a peg for me to pitch a story looking back at this weird chapter in L.A. history. Animal behavior is interesting, but the way humans behave around other species is this whole other thing. We project all kinds of stuff onto them.
I slid Reggie in with the story ideas I pitched my editor in my first week on the job, and was delighted when she signed off. I started at the paper on April 18 and Reggie’s “anniversary” was May 24, so I got going on it right away, alongside several more traditional science stories so my new bosses wouldn’t think I was only into alligators.
Which editor or editors did you work with? Did the story’s structure or tone change much with editing?
LAT science editor Karen Kaplan did the first read. Then it went over to the Column One team, where Steve Padilla and Alice Short edited the final version. I have been a Column One fan for years and was so, so excited to have the chance to work with them.
Everyone agreed from the start that while we’d take the reporting seriously, the tone should be upbeat and fun. No one needs to read a story about an alligator. If we were going to ask people to give this any amount of their time and attention, it should be a good ride the whole way through.
I sent my first draft to Karen with a note that I knew it was way too long — at least 70 inches (a little more than 2,000 words), which was too much to ask of a reader. Reggie also needed to be a stronger character in his own story. He did not choose his circumstances, obviously, but he isn’t a passive character either. Reggie had his own needs and motivations: food, shelter, safety. His whole story is about the clash between his pragmatic, survival-oriented, predictable behaviors and the chaotic, poorly-judged and often baffling actions of the humans around him.
Not to put you on the spot, but are there any favorite lines or paragraphs? If so, how did they come about?
I have favorite quotes from interviews. Colorado gator wrangler Jay Young is a very quotable individual. As soon as he said “They’re cute when they’re babies, but so was I, and look how that turned out,” I knew I really wanted to find a place for it in the story. I’m sure he’s used that line before. I don’t care.
I spoke to Jay on his cell phone while he was feeding Morris, one of the alligators at Colorado Gators in Mosca, Colorado. Morris is retired from show business now, but he was in both a version of “Dr. Dolittle” and in “Happy Gilmore” — he’s the alligator who eats Chubbs’s hand. On the audio of the call you can hear Morris hissing in the background.
There are some knockout quotes. How many interviews did you conduct for this particular story?
There were only four on-the-record interviews with people directly involved in Reggie’s capture: Supervisor and former city councilwoman Janice Hahn, gator wranglers Jay Young of Colorado Gators and Flavio Morrissiey, formerly of Gatorworld; and most crucially Ian Recchio, head reptile curator at the L.A. Zoo.
I spent way more time trying to track down interviews I ultimately didn’t get. Even with the help of the Times’s excellent librarian, Cary Schneider, I came up short trying to find some of the story’s most colorful side characters: the leader of the Gatorland team, the self-professed crocodile hunter from Louisiana who turned out to be on the lam, the parks-and-rec employee who got tapped on an otherwise normal shift to help Recchio pin Reggie to the ground.
The interviews I most wanted but did not get were with the two people who released Reggie into the lake. It is, unequivocally, an awful idea to keep an alligator as a pet. But in reading reports from the time, it struck me that they genuinely seemed to have cared for this animal. He was their pet, and when he got too big they probably panicked. They found one of the very few places in Los Angeles where you can both quietly unload an alligator and give that alligator a decent shot at life. To paraphrase J.B. Smoove: They weren’t wrong. They just weren’t right.
Cary got their contact details and I sent a detailed message about why I wanted to talk. But I wasn’t going to hassle them about it. This wasn’t some kind of Whitey Bulger situation. They paid their fines and settled their debts. I can understand if this was an episode of their lives they’d rather not revisit.
The story zips along, but there’s a lot of research into Reggie’s jam-packed history. How did you research history from the earlier years?
The media obsession with this alligator was a big part of the story, so fortunately there was a lot of archival material to work from. The L.A. Times had a ton in its archives, but so did newspapers from Florida to London. Different outlets had focused on different aspects of the story, so together they helped form a fairly solid timeline.
I went to Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park where Reggie was first spotted, and to the zoo. I read a lot about alligators and eventually tried to buy one online to see how hard it would be. (Answer: too easy.) I did not click the purchase button but I did have a baby American alligator in my cart for a few minutes.
I also love the last couple lines: “He is as alligator-like as alligators come, Recchio likes to say. The one thing that makes him different is that, for a while, he was a star in L.A.” How did you fashion that ending?
Credit for that goes entirely to Column One editors Steve and Alice. In the earliest drafts, there was a graf after that about how all of the gator wranglers interviewed said Reggie was the only one who ever got away from them. That’s true, but cutting it kept the focus on Reggie rather than the people around them, and I think that was the right call.
Photographer Irfan Khan got out to the zoo to get excellent photographs. ere you able to report from there (and meet Reggie) yourself?
Yes! Irfan and I were there at the same time. For a story like this you definitely want that sensory detail: the hissing sound Reggie makes when someone gets too close to Tina, the things kids say when they’re pressed up against the fence, how slow the alligators walk and the sheer amount of time they spend standing still, doing what looks like nothing. They are so low profile that they can be hard to spot even in their relatively small enclosure. I understand how Reggie dodged capture in an enormous lake.
I was really hoping the zoo was going to let us follow Ian Recchio into Reggie’s enclosure, but for very understandable reasons they are very choosy about who gets close to their carnivores. Two concentric fences separate Reggie and Tina from the public, and we were allowed as far as the in-between space.
Irfan is a distinguished photojournalist who has photographed battlefields and the aftermath of terror attacks. In terms of perilous things he’s faced at work, an alligator is nothing. He kept leaning over the fence to get better photos, even though Recchio kept warning him that alligators can climb and he was getting too close. Worrying that Irfan was going to get himself bitten by this alligator was probably the most stressful part of the whole reporting process.
Is there anything you learned while reporting or writing this that may help you or other journalists working on future stories?
Archival media reports are great resources to have when reconstructing a story, but make sure you verify the reporting along the way. Several of the people involved in Reggie’s capture at the lake remembered specific errors in media coverage from the time, and I was careful to vet things as best I could before citing them
Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.