"Isabelle, come on baby! Charlie, Boomer, Otto, Fifi, come on! Hurry up!"
In answer to 78-year-old Annie Miller's voice, her swamp friends cut silently through the dark bayou.Only when they close in to lunge for the hunks of raw chicken she slaps on the water are her friends identifiable: alligators, some very large alligators.
For 14 years, Miller - known as Alligator Annie - has made a living introducing visitors to the swamps outside Houma, 50 miles southwest of New Orleans. She proudly points out their glories - after all, this is her back yard - and their dangers.
"Now, all of you, keep those hands inside the boat," she cautioned passengers in English and French on a recent tour. "My friends, here, they don't know the difference between a hand and a chunk of chicken."
Her husband, Ed, who transplanted himself from Oklahoma to Louisiana 35 years ago, added, "The big ones have a bite of 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch."
She easily maneuvers the 24-seat aluminum barge through channels clogged with blooming water hyacinths and downed trees from Hurricane Andrew, warning passengers when to duck beneath moss-draped oak branches dipping toward Bayou Black.
"Over there, look at that hawk. And that's a great blue heron," she said. "The eagles aren't back yet but should be coming in any day."
But for every scene and creature she points out, there is an accompanying lament from the Millers for something lost from the swamps, generally because of man-made changes.
"We had a lot of deer, a few bear in the hardwood swamp" north of the Intercoastal Waterway. "There used to be so many otters here," Annie Miller said. "But there's hardly any left," Ed Miller said. Overtrapping got some, and pesticide runoff from (sugar) cane fields contaminated the fish they ate and killed them."
""What man hasn't killed or carved up, the storms have," Annie Miller said.
She grew up hunting, fishing and living off the land in a home nearby where her parents spoke only French. Wisps of lilting Cajun accent still flavor her speech.
After meeting Ed, an oilfield worker, at a dance 36 years ago, the first place she took him was duck hunting.
A few months later, Ed's neck was broken in a fall but Annie insisted that the wedding proceed as planned, except it was in a New Orleans hospital.
With Ed unable to walk for months after his release, Annie turned to the swamps for their livelihood. For 18 years, they raised their two adopted sons by catching snakes - up to 200 a day - to sell to zoos and laboratories.
Between those expeditions, they trapped nutria and muskrat, crabbed and fished until the Houma Chamber of Commerce asked Annie Miller to try giving swamp tours to meet tourists' requests.
She complied and began feeding the alligators a little chicken to draw them to her boat so tourists could get a safe but close-up view of the antediluvian creatures.
Now Annie Miller feeds them almost two tons of chicken a year.
Her success at drawing visitors to the area led the local government to declare sections of the marsh and bayous as "alligator preserves."
"I've lived off the land all my life, but I hate killing just for killing, wanton slaughter. And I fight it," she declared. "I fight for my 'gators, too.
"Move it, Otto, you had enough. Give old Mike some more," she told Ed. "He's still hungry."