VEGA BAJA, Puerto Rico – When heavy rains begin to pelt a flood-prone neighborhood along Puerto Rico's north coast, people start sharpening their knives and preparing their lassoes.
The floods herald the arrival of caimans, a close relative of the alligator, whose population has exploded in and around the lagoon next to Los Naranjos neighborhood in the coastal city of Vega Baja.
The scaly reptiles have been spotted prowling around schools and crawling into flooded yards after rains, causing both widespread panic and curiosity in the community.
Calls to government officials to help catch the reptiles and take measures to prevent further flooding have been futile. So now, the residents of Los Naranjos have been forced to face their fears and become caiman catchers themselves in this community of scarce resources where some still ride horses bareback as transportation. Among the rudimentary equipment at their disposal: Wire, duct tape and metal poles.
People taught themselves the trick to hunting caimans, sometimes learning from others how to rope them in and tape their mouths shut. They've also mastered the art of flashing lights into the brackish waters of the nearby lagoon until they spot pairs of squinty green eyes gleaming just above the surface.
Ask anyone in this coastal neighborhood if they know someone who traps and kills caimans, and the reply is likely a peal of laughter. The question is akin to asking who hunts for crabs, neighbors say. Everyone does it.
Caimans are found across Puerto Rico, especially its north coast, but the island's biggest population is in Vega Baja, site of the Tortuguero Lagoon, a natural reserve, said Angel Atienza, wildlife director of the island's Department of Natural Resources.
"They have always lived there, they have always reproduced there," he said. "There are thousands there."
After seeing a caiman cross a road near the elementary school where she's the director, Johanna Rosado ordered chaperones to accompany children when they go to the bathroom following heavy rains, just as a precaution. She said the school is surrounded by a chain-link fence but is trying to raise money to build a concrete wall.
"It's one thing to hear about it and it's another to see it with your own eyes," Rosado said. "I lived it. Now I believe it happens."
The creatures are native to Central and South America, but were introduced to Puerto Rico by stores such as Woolworth's that sold baby caimans the size of lizards as pets during the 1960s and 70s, Atienza said. When the caimans began to grow, people released them into the wild, where females rapidly reproduced, laying up to 40 eggs at a time. The island's government authorizes hunting caimans since they're considered non-native species.
"They have no natural enemies," Atienza said. "They go into people's homes. In Vega Baja, they recently went into someone's yard."
Tania Otero, 40, remembers the day.
She was outside with her 17-year-old son a couple months ago when she heard the dogs bark.
"My son tells me, 'Mom, I think there's something back there,'" Otero recalled.
As she rounded the corner, she saw a 4-foot-long (1.2-meter) specimen exploring the grounds.
"My son jumped up to the roof," she said. "I climbed the porch railing."
Otero's father heard their screams from inside the house and called Daniel Montañez, a 58-year-old neighbor who has earned a reputation as one of the best caiman catchers in Los Naranjos.
Montañez arrived with one of his sons carrying a homemade lasso and trapped the caiman as it thrashed its thick tail about. He then took his prey home, where he keeps a makeshift tank filled with nearly 30 caimans. That bounty is a source of pride.
"Listen, all that is for...," he stopped mid-sentence as he pointed to the tank, rubbed his stomach and broke into a big grin.
As expected, the Montañez family said the meat tastes like chicken as long as it's marinated in lemon or orange juice to first take away the fishy taste. Then they fry it, saute it or grill it. What the family doesn't eat is sold to interested buyers.
A fisherman by trade, Montañez said the caimans first caught his eye during night fishing expeditions. Now, neighbors call him if they have a problem with the reptiles.
Visitors also stop by to gawk at his teeming tank. On a recent afternoon, Montañez grabbed a metal pole with a wire lasso, dipped it into the tank and pulled out a nearly 3-foot-long (0.9-meter) specimen. Suddenly, the wire at the end of the pole broke, and the caiman made a run for freedom.
Watching from a distance, Montañez's son-in-law, 34-year-old Albert Santos, also made a run for it as Montañez laughed.
"That one gets scared," Montañez said. Nearly everyone in the family except Santos helps catch caimans.
Even Santos's wife, 33-year-old Enid Montañez, has learned the trade. She accompanies her father when the waters begin to rise, spotting caimans and helping wrestle them until their snout is wrapped shut. She then plops them into her car and brings them home, dropping them into the tank.
Killing them is tedious labor. On a recent night, Montañez and three of his grandsons caught a 2-foot-long (.6-meter) caiman from the tank and spent an hour cutting and cleaning the body. At the end, only one grandson, the youngest, had the patience to stay and help.
Hiram David Rivera, 32, said he fishes the reptiles to sell to a taxidermist, who in turn sells the stuffed creatures to tourists. Rivera recalled that he and a friend recently caught a 6-foot-long (1.8-meter) caiman on a hunting trip nearly gone wrong. As the two pulled the reptile into the boat, his friend's grasp slipped and the caiman snapped his mouth shut, nearly biting the friend.
"He almost lost his hands," Rivera said. "That's 90 pounds of pressure in their jaw."
Despite the scare, Rivera said he will persist in the hunt.
"They are everywhere," he said. "The lagoon is packed with them."