Florida's premiere alligator hunter likes to tell the story of the telephone call he received from a woman who complained that she could not sleep for fear of alligators.

"When I asked her where she lived, she said on the eighth floor of a condominium," related Lt. Richard Lawrence of the state's Freshwater Fish and Game Commission."I told her 'gators don't climb stairs and seldom ride in elevators."

Lawrence is the man to whom every alligator complaint in the state is directed, and the number of complaints goes up every year.

"It's only natural," said the man who has caught some 800 of the scaly, toothy reptiles in his 17 years on the commission. "There is so much construction going on that there's bound to be an overlap of habitat."

Thousands of miles of canals carry fresh water from the northern part of Florida to the south. They pass through farmland, swamps, parts of the Florida Everglades and, finally, through the backyards of homeowners in southern Florida.

For alligators on the move, the canals are perfect highways to urban areas.

It is not unusual to see alligators basking on man-made obstacles in the canals; but they sometimes choose backyards, or stop off for a romp in a handy swimming pool.

That's when Lawrence's phone begins to ring.

If there's real danger - an alligator loitering near small children, for instance - he acts. But generally, the caller is less threatened than panicked.

"Usually it's from people who have never seen a 'gator before," he said. "They just go off the deep end and have visions of it eating their kids, or their husband or wife."

The threat to human life is very small, he said, noting that in his 17 years on the commission only three fatalities had been attributed to alligators - including a drunk who jumped into the water to do battle with a 'gator and drowned before he reached it.

But the fearful calls persist.

"One woman swore up and down the thing was eating her seawall," said Lawrence.

Others call to tell him of an alligator that decimated the neighborhood dog population in a single weekend, or about the gator that ran as fast as a horse.

Neither feat is in the alligator's repertoire.

Lawrence, 47, usually sits on complaints - there were 80 on his desk as he spoke - for two or three days before calling back, "and most of the time they tell me the alligator has gone."

"In most cases it's fear, they let it build up in their minds. It's tragic, really."

Lawrence knows that most of the sightings in urban area are of small alligators, which he defines as under six feet.

The big ones - 'gators can grow to 19 feet - "don't come into town the way they used to."

As for the young ones, their diet consists of insects, crayfish, snakes, injured fish and other small edibles.

"People just aren't on the menu," Lawrence said.

Sometimes, though, gators must be dealt with, he acknowledged.

Candidates for capture are large alligators, those that often appear in areas where there are lots of pets or small children, or those that make threatening gestures, hissing or moving toward people or pets.

"I more or less try to talk people out of having the 'gator removed," Lawrence said, "but if there's a real threat I can't take any chances."

In those cases, the state issues a license for a professional alligator trapper to capture the offender, who is then taken to the trapper's home, where it is skinned and butchered.

The hunters are not paid by the state. They make their money by selling the skins to hide dealers and the meat to certain restaurants that offer alligator on the menu.

A good hide sells for about $25 a foot, with the hunter pocketing 70 percent of the price and the game commission 30 percent. The price of the meat varies.

"Sometimes people have second thoughts about having called us and ask the hunters what is going to happen to the 'gators," Lawrence said. "They usually tell them that they will take it out to the Everglades and release it."

Still, there is no doubt whose side Lawrence is on.

When a woman called to complain that she was afraid to let her 18-month-old wander down to the canal, he told her an 18-month-old shouldn't be wandering anywhere, period.

"Not one quarter of 1 percent of alligators ever attack anything," he said.

That statistic would, however, be pretty hard to back up scientifically since no one knows how many alligators there are in Florida. One rough count at the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge in southeast Florida totaled some 24,000 alligators.