Alligators Protected to Improve Economy
In April of 1890, the Police Jury of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana made the decision to prohibit the further killing of alligators. This decision was unfortunate for the fashion industry, as purses, reticules, traveling bags, and footwear were all accessories that could be made out of alligator hide. Apparently, it was fashion's mandate to do so. In Louisiana and Florida, their abundance of alligators added an extra boom in their economy and helped support this fashion craze. However, alligators preyed on muskrats who would eat the crops in the area. The decline of the alligator population led to an increase in the population of muskrats, thus seriously damaging the crops. The Police Jury was so serious about this prohibition that they would fine anyone killing an alligator a penalty of 25 and put them in prison for a month for each offense. Clearly, the ban on killing alligators was not an example of animal rights activism. The banning in Plaquemines was economically and financially motivated.
While this instance could be deemed an early example of animal rights protection, it is much more likely that it is a case of Louisiana protecting its economy. Without their crops, Louisiana, much like many other states of the South, had nothing. Later in the nineteenth century, prices of farm products were consistently low. Poverty was widespread throughout Louisiana's farming population already, and without the alligators there to prey on the muskrats, their crops and income were being hurt even more. Farmers' Alliances were formed to help combat these financial issues. However, at this time, the Democratic Party was dominant in the South, and they essentially stood for white power, while the Farmers' Alliances consisted of mostly black farmers. During 1890, the People's Party was beginning to form, which was supported mainly by farmers in the South. It was similar to the Greenback Labor Party which had formed during the 1880s and opened the door to the concept of populism, which is the appeal to the common person and, likewise, incorporates a sense of working class activism. The Police Jury's response to the alligator situation was in direct correlation with the ideals of the People's Party and populism. The area was much more densely populated with poor farmers, struggling to make enough money to live, than rich people, who would be deeply upset by the absence of alligator purses. Only the wealthier half of the population in the state and the country could afford luxuries such as those. Therefore, the mandate to forbid killing alligators was both necessary and logical. Crops bring in much more money to the states economy than the alligator fashion trend, so sacrificing that fad makes much more sense for the sake of the states' financial well-being.
- "Alligators to be Protected," New York Times, April 26, 1890.
- Michael L. Lanza, "Getting Down to Business: The Public Land Offices in Louisiana During Reconstruction," Louisiana History 29 (1988): 177-182.