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With a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and a law degree from the University of Georgia, Presiding Judge J.D. Smith of the Georgia Court of Appeals is understandably sensitive to the animosity between his two alma maters. So Smith clearly could not resist having a little fun when writing a decision about a South Georgia litigant who was required by the state Department of Natural Resources to divide his alligator farm into areas for home-grown alligators and imports from Florida. “Several times in this opinion, we refer to ‘Georgia alligators,’ ” Smith wrote in a footnote. “ We do so reluctantly and solely for the sake of convenience and brevity. “We recognize that for literally millions of Georgians and Floridians, the term ‘Georgia Gators,’ or any approximation thereof, is an inherently offensive oxymoron,” Smith added. “We apologize for any pain or distress caused by this unfamiliar and unfortunate juxtaposition.” Wright v. State Department of Natural Resources, No. A01A2309 (Ct. App. Ga. March 26, 2002). The decision, joined by Judges Anne E. Barnes and Herbert E. Phipps, held that Winston Wright could not prevail in his claim for compensation from state regulators who barred him from selling about 650 alligators. Hardy Gregory Jr. of Cordele, a former state supreme court justice who represented Wright, acknowledged that Smith’s footnote, and a case about an alligator farm in general, “is kind of funny.” But he added that his client’s problem is serious business. According to the decision, Wright in 1963 fenced in a portion of a 30-to-40 acre pond on his farm, near the Okefenokee Swamp, capturing a small number of alligators. In 1982, he asked the Department of Natural Resources for a license to breed and to sell the alligators. The department denied the application in 1983, citing a state law declaring that the state owned all wildlife, including the alligators Wright had spent the past 19 years feeding in his fenced-in pond. A commissioner suggested Wright breed a new stock by obtaining alligators from a legal and previously established farm. As long as Wright kept his new alligators separate from those from Georgia, he could breed and sell eggs and offspring of the new stock, the commissioner said, according to the court decision. Wright took the commissioner’s advice, buying new alligators from a Florida farm. But in 1991, the Florida alligators escaped into the larger portion of the pond where the Georgia alligators lived, according to the decision. That same year, the department nonetheless renewed Wright’s license on the condition he recapture and separate the Georgia and Florida reptiles. When Wright did not do this, the department in 1996 barred him from selling his entire alligator stock to a hide trader. Complying with the department’s separation demands was next to impossible, said Gregory in a telephone interview. “You tell me,” he asked, “how do you tell them apart?” In 1998, Wright sued the department in Atkinson County Superior Court, claiming he had acquired a legitimate property interest in the alligators and deserved just compensation for the state’s taking of the alligators’ value by prohibiting him from selling them. Judge Brooks E. Blitch III granted the state summary judgment, echoing the department’s original 1983 ruling that the state owned the Georgia alligators and noting that Wright had dismissed his appeal of that ruling. On appeal, Gregory, along with Ralph F. Simpson of Tifton and Robert B. Sumner of Pearson, argued that the law declaring all wildlife state property did not apply to Wright’s alligators, because the law was passed five years after Wright first fenced in the alligators. But Smith responded that the law when Wright captured the alligators still required him to obtain “a special annual alligator’s hunter’s license,” which Wright did not get. “Because Wright failed to abide by the law at the outset in acquiring the alligators, and because the law in effect at the time he applied for a license placed ownership of wildlife in the State of Georgia, we cannot conclude that he ever obtained a property interest in those alligators,” wrote Smith. The panel also rejected Wright’s alternative claim, that if the state owns the alligators, then he should be allowed to remove them as a nuisance. Smith wrote that state law makes the Department of Natural Resources immune from suits regarding “any damage to life, person or property caused directly or indirectly by any wildlife.” Gregory said his client has not decided whether to seek certiorari at the Georgia Supreme Court. He called the decision “unfortunate, that this man spent all this money and effort on this project and the state of Georgia took it.” A 12-foot alligator can fetch up to $2,500, he said. Deputy State Attorney General Katherine M. Pacious, Senior Assistant State Attorney General John C. Jones and Assistant State Attorney General Devon A. Orland, along with Berrien L. Sutton of Homerville, represented the state. Russell D. Willard, a spokesman for State Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker, said, “We were heartened to see the court of appeals refused to condone alligator rustling.”

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