SLIDELL, La. – When an alligator turns up in St. Tammany Parish, sheriff’s Deputy Howard McCrea, 61, is the man who gets the call.

He’s been doing it for years, pulling gators out of waterways all across the parish. But he had never seen anything like last week’s attack on Devin Funck.

McCrea spent 21/2 hours that hot afternoon of July 30 hunting and fighting with Big Joe, the nickname locals had given the nearly 11-foot alligator that swallowed 11-year-old Devin’s left arm.

Stoking hopes that the boy’s limb could be retrieved and reattached, McCrea mustered the totality of his alligator knowledge, gained during a lifetime of trudging through Slidell’s marshy swamps, to take on the awesome chore.

The drama started with a cell phone call at about 3 p.m. The Sheriff’s Office needed McCrea’s expertise at the pond near Slidell where Funck had been swimming when the gator attacked. Within a half-hour, the gator hunter arrived on the scene.

Wading into the water, McCrea used his body to bait Big Joe. He made duck noises and splashed his legs like a fish.

The gator surfaced about 60 yards away. McCrea knew from its size and location that it must be the one that had taken the child’s arm. But just as he glimpsed the 500-pound gator, it plunged beneath the surface.

McCrea guessed from the way the gator dove – calm and measured and flat – that it likely would resurface close to him.

Moments passed. Then, as expected, the creature reemerged 20 yards away. McCrea positioned his .22-caliber rifle. He pulled the trigger.

The shot slammed Big Joe in the head. But the gator did not die. It merely was stunned.

The hunter seized the moment. He lifted his fishing rod, affixed with a three-pronged hook and snared Big Joe in the twisted tines.

But the prey, showing its brute strength, snapped the 100-pound line and fled.

McCrea and state wildlife agent Sgt. Darryl Galloway charged after the gator. They stalked the reptile through the brush for a half-hour. Then, suddenly, Big Joe slipped away.

The search for Devin’s arm came to a halt. The gator could be anywhere in the sprawling marsh. But just as McCrea and Galloway found themselves back at square one, a reinforcement arrived: Teddy Macke, the deputy chief of St. Tammany Fire District 1, with a small flatboat.

Working together, the three men tracked the beast. Their senses operating in tandem, they spotted it, then got close.

Again, they managed to hook it. This time, the line held.

Now, the kill.

McCrea and Galloway, who carried a .45-caliber automatic pistol, watched the water. Every time Big Joe came up for air, they blasted their weapons.

About 10 shots rang out. When their prodding no longer yielded a reaction, they knew Big Joe was dead.

McCrea, Galloway and Macke hauled the gator’s lifeless body to shore about 6 p.m. McCrea used his pocket knife to cut open its belly. He pulled out Devin’s arm, intact but blue.

“I was just relieved that we did find it,” McCrea said later.

Another task complete.

A retired St. Tammany public school bus driver, McCrea always has been fascinated with gators.

“You know how when you’re a kid, you see people who are doing the job you want to be doing?” McCrea said. “Well, I’m doing that job.”

An avid storyteller, the alligator hunter’s brain buzzes with notable adventures.

One gator lodged in mind is his Moby Dick, the 10-foot reptile that in 2005 eluded McCrea for nearly two months in a drainage canal under Slidell’s busiest street.

At times, more than 200 people gathered to watch McCrea stalk the creature. A near-catch in February 2005 was thwarted when the gator escaped by burrowing in the mud.

Every day McCrea checked that spot, figuring the gator “was going to have to dig his way out sooner or later.” On April 13, 2005, he spotted its nose poking above the water’s surface. He used a pole to slip a rope noose over its head. Captain Ahab got his prize.

Though not his longest or his largest, McCrea admits that Big Joe was his most dramatic and horrific catch.

After McCrea fished Devin’s arm from Big Joe’s belly, another deputy and two Slidell-area firefighters quickly put the arm on ice and rushed it to a New Orleans hospital.

Though surgeons were unable to reattach it, doctors have predicted Devin otherwise will make a full recovery.

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