Jim Devaney knows he’s a bit of a contrarian. Still, he holds his opinions about as firmly as a hungry alligator clamps its prey.
Devaney, who owns the leather company Abas Accessories, has been in the alligator skin business since the early 1980s and has co-owned the Black Diamond Tannery in Lecanto since 2015.
At Black Diamond, a three-person team processes alligator skin into leather, which is then sent to the Abas factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, to be turned into wallets, bracelets, watchbands, purses and other products.
The point of contention, the idea that makes Devaney a self-proclaimed contrarian in the world of alligator leather, is that he insists on only using wild-caught animals instead of farm-raised ones. This puts him at odds with the prevailing trends of the industry, as he estimates that less than 5% of alligator skins being tanned into leather today are from alligators caught in the wild.
“I do not believe that farm-raised alligators are sustainable,” he said, referring to both economic and ethical considerations. “If the animal’s skin is its ultimate value, I do not believe that is sustainable.”
Among the many reasons alligator farming has become a critical source of skins for the leather industry is the fact that the skins are more pristine and can be raised in the most optimal conditions and many more of them can be supplied.
Alligator farming has also played a role in conservation efforts for the species. Because most farms harvest eggs from the wild, it is in their interests as well to invest in long-term preservation. Alligator farms and trappers alike operate under a strict set of regulations from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“The economic benefits associated with participating in the alligator management programs support the research, management and law enforcement activities that contribute to the conservation success of Florida’s alligator population,” said Tammy Sapp, communications manager at the FWC. “This sustainable use also creates ambassadors for the long-term well-being of the state’s alligator resource.”
But a consequence of the advent of farming has been an oversupply of skins that has made their value plummet. This oversupply has mainly come from large-scale industrial farms that can slaughter thousands of animals every week and have chomped smaller operations out of business.
“We couldn’t stay in business, ‘cause you can’t hardly give away an alligator hide if you’re a small farmer nowadays,” said Linda Boston, who runs a farm in Sanford with her husband. “For a small alligator farmer, there’s no profit at this point.”
Indeed, the average price per linear foot of alligator hide fell from $70 to $39 between 2016 and 2021, while the total number of hides produced on farms in Florida rose from 16,621 in 2009 to 39,254 in 2020, according to the Alligator Management Team at the FWC. The skyrocketing supply far outpaces the demand for leather. These conditions make it difficult for small-scale farmers to stay in business.
The Bostons now only sell meat, which she said is growing in popularity in restaurants nationwide. She joked that the only way to end up with $1 million selling skins now is to start with $10 million.
Kurt Parlier, who, along with his brother, recently left farming to focus on leading alligator hunts for tourists, put it simply.
“That’s a dying industry,” he said.