Alligators -- Our Natural Born Killers?

The last year has offered some chilling horror stories of alligators as man killers. Here's what has happened and what's being done about it! (January 2007)

Wherever found, as this muskrat discovered, alligators can be dangerous eating machines.
Photo courtesy of Polly Dean.

Confrontations between alligators and humans are seemingly on the increase and a number of these attacks recently have had fatal consequences. Last spring, three women in the state of Florida where killed by alligators within one week's time!

Twenty-three-year-old Annemarie Campbell was snorkeling in a recreation area near Lake George in Florida when friends she had been staying with found her in the jaws of an alligator. The men poked at the eyes of the gator to get him to release its hold on Campbell, but it was too late and she was already dead. Her stepfather sustained injuries to his hand while trying to help her. Authorities estimated the alligator responsible for this attack to be 7 to 9 feet long.

On the same day, 130 miles away in Pinellas County, the body of Judy Cooper was recovered. Her body was covered with bite marks consistent with those of an alligator. It was estimated that she had been in the water for about three days. The details surrounding Ms. Cooper's death are unknown, but it is believed that she had been alive when the alligator attacked her.

Three days later, the dismembered body of Yovy Suarez Jimenez was found in a canal near Ft. Lauderdale. The 28-year-old student is believed to have been attacked and dragged into the water by an alligator, either while jogging or sitting on the water's edge. The 400-pound, 9-foot, 6-inch beast responsible for Jimenez' grizzly death was captured a few days later in the area of the attack. Medical examiners found two human arms in the animal's stomach.

Before these three deaths, Florida had seen only 17 confirmed fatalities credited to alligators in the last 58 years. However, don't get the idea this is just a Florida phenomenon. The American alligator thrives in the states of Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. Cold winter temperatures limit their range from more northern locations.

Have alligators gone on a killing spree and do we need to worry about falling prey to these reptiles?

Officials in Florida are unsure as to what may have provoked the spat of fatal attacks in such a short period. Speculation is that in the spring the gators are on the move looking for mates, which may have contributed to the incidents. Also, as temperatures heat up, an alligator's metabolism increases, which means that they must eat more. They are simply looking for more food. However, those situations happen every year and do not explain the recent attacks.

ABOUT THE CRITTERS

Alligators live in freshwater lakes, rivers and swamps. They can tolerate salinity for short periods and are occasionally found in brackish water. An adult male can grow to a length of 13 to 14 1/2 feet and weigh up to 600 pounds. A female generally reaches a length of just under 10 feet. The largest ever officially recorded was found in Louisiana and measured 19 feet, 2 inches long.

The weight compared with length of alligators varies greatly depending on diet. According to the Everglades National Park, one 11-foot, 6-inch alligator weighed 591 pounds while another gator measuring 12 feet, 1 inch weighed less than 490 pounds.

Young alligators can grow up to a foot a year in Louisiana coastal swamps where food is abundant. Farther north in their range, growth tends to be much slower. This is easily explained by the fact that when temperatures began to fall to the 80-degree mark, an alligator begins to lose its appetite. At 73 degrees, they may stop feeding altogether. Their metabolism slows to such a rate that the animals can survive the winter on their stored energy reserves.

While alligators are at home in the water, they are quite agile on land as well. They usually do lumber slowly along dragging their tails, but they can rise up on their front toes and the heels of the hind feet to get most of the tail off the ground. In that situation, they can run at speeds of 30 miles per hour for short distances!

Obviously, alligators are carnivores. They eat a variety of small prey. Young gators feed on insects, crayfish, fish and frogs. Adults move up the food chain to wading birds, raccoons, otters and even deer. The smaller prey is swallowed whole. Larger animals are torn apart by biting down repeatedly, using the alligator's teeth and extremely strong jaw muscles. With very large prey, the gator submerges and drowns the victim. The dead prey is dragged around or guarded for several days until rotted enough to tear apart and eat.

WHAT ARE THE DANGERS?

With the seemingly alarming increase in attacks by alligators, sportsmen need to put the statistics in perspective. Data from the International Shark Attack File shows that we are more likely to encounter and be attacked by a shark than an alligator. In a comparison of alligator and shark attacks in states where both dangers exist, between the years of 1948 and 2005, Florida had 509 recorded shark attacks compared with 351 by alligators. South Carolina follows with 38 attacks by sharks versus nine by alligators, and Texas lists 30 shark attacks to only 15 for gators. The bad news, though, is that the fatality rate is higher with alligator attacks at 4.3 percent, while only 1.5 percent of shark victims die.

Sportsmen do use the same habitat that alligators prefer, so we do end up at close quarters with the reptiles at times. One of the most unsettling scenes that I have witnessed happened while I was enjoying a day of fishing by kayak and wading. I had spent the better portion of the day targeting snook, but in an area where the water was brackish and near the point, it gave way to fresh water. I was kayaking from spot to spot and than wading the areas thoroughly.

At one stop, I was standing and casting to a mangrove bank, when a commotion caught my attention alongside a dock several yards away. A duck was floundering in an unnatural way and then quickly disappeared under the surface as if being yanked from beneath. As I tried to process what was happening, the bird's head appeared again above the water's surface, gasped in distress and then quickly went down. It never came back up.

I immediately felt vulnerable standing waist deep in the murky water. The creature under the water that grabbed that unfortunate duck was probably just a small alligator. But realizing that my kayak was anchored quite a distance away, I was not comfortable in continuing my pursuit of snook. I could have been sharing the water with that gator's older and bigger relative th

at was much quicker than me. I got back in my kayak and fished from it the remainder of the day.

Both hunters and fishermen can take simple precautions to lessen their chances of a confrontation with one of these toothy reptiles. Since alligators tend to feed during dusk or early morning, be especially cautious during these hours when fishing fresh water, particularly near weeded banks or shallows. Alligators are active at night as well.

Don't dangle hands or feet in the water. This can draw the reptile's attention to what it thinks is a small creature creating the commotion.

Never feed or entice an alligator. This is illegal everywhere and decreases gators' wariness of humans, while teaching them to associate people with food. Dispose of fish scraps in garbage cans at boat ramps, too. By throwing them into the water, you are unintentionally feeding alligators and the end result is the same.

Dogs more closely resemble in size an alligator's natural prey than humans do. Don't allow them to swim or drink in water that may be inhabited by alligators. Also, if you let them play in waters ordinarily used by humans, you are likely luring gators to the area, too.

Alligators of 6 feet or longer are most likely to attack humans. If you are attacked, the best thing to do is fight the animal. Create as much noise and commotion as possible and hopefully, the gator will realize he may have made a mistake and is taking on more than he wants to handle. If possible, go for the eyes.

Today's Reality

These primitive reptiles have inhabited marshes, rivers and lakes for centuries. The human population continues to grow, and increasingly we seek waterfront homes and enjoy the water for sport-related activities. Alligators are forced to coexist with us. Even though an alligator's instinct is to avoid human contact, we must also remember that they are predatory by nature and because of their large size and our encroachment onto their habitat, encounters are inevitable.

The American alligator was hunted extensively in the first half of the 20th century. Their hide, especially that of their soft bellies, was a valued item for the making of leather wallets and purses. Even with imposed hunting restrictions, poaching so severely diminished their populations that the alligator was listed as an endangered species in 1967.

With effective protection, including restrictions on the import and export of skins and public awareness that reduced demands, the alligator rebounded so successfully that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared a complete recovery of the species in 1987. Once on the brink of extinction, these animals now thrive in great numbers in our Southern states with the population estimated in excess of 4 million animals.

As the numbers of gators increase, the number of encounters with humans is also on the rise. As a result, the number of "nuisance calls" handled by state wildlife agencies has increased dramatically as well. Alligators are showing up in places where they simply aren't wanted, such as neighborhood ponds, back yards and even garages. In most cases, if left alone, an alligator returns to its original habitat.

Florida led the way in creating a Statewide Alligator Nuisance Program to handle the steadily increasing number of calls. About 40 private trappers are contracted and licensed to remove gators that have been determined a nuisance. The program permits the harvesting of those alligators that are determined to be threats to people, pets or property. To be a nuisance, alligators generally must be larger than 4 feet in length. Smaller gators do not pose a danger to animals or people unless handled. In rare instances, if the smaller alligators do not retreat when approached or do not have a natural area to return to, licensed nuisance trappers may also pick them up.

In Florida alone, authorities receive approximately 17,000 nuisance calls a year. As a result, about 7,000 of these gators are removed from the area. Louisiana also reports several thousand nuisance calls a year, with up to 2,000 gators needing to be relocated. Every other state in which they occur also record nuisance calls annually.

One response to all this interaction with a growing population of alligators has been the establishment of hunting seasons in many states where alligators are found. Alabama is the most recent state to allow the hunting of alligators with a season being added in 2006. Alabama's season was implemented on a small scale with only 50 licenses being issued by a random lottery and a season lasting only a week in the month of August. Each person receiving an Alligator Possession Tag was allowed to harvest one alligator at a length of 6 feet or longer. Like other states that have implemented alligator seasons, all hunters were required to attend a training course to be eligible to legally harvest a gator.

Capture and dispatch methods vary from state to state. Generally, the alligator must be captured and restrained adjacent to a boat before dispatching. Capture methods can include hand-held snares, snatch hooks that are hand-held or attached to rod and reel, harpoons with attached line, or by using bowfishing equipment with line attached to a bow and arrow. Baiting is not allowed in any state.

Once the alligator is restrained and its size determined, if legal size, it must immediately be killed or released. Allowable firearms regulations vary by state and firearms use after dark also varies. Bangsticks are allowed. Firearms and bangsticks must remain cased and unloaded until the alligator is restrained at the boat.

Minimum age requirements vary in each state. Florida requires applicants to be 18 years of age; Alabama, 16 years; and Georgia allows youngsters at the age of 12 to apply as long as an adult accompanies them and a Hunter Safety course has been completed.

Since 1988, the Florida statewide harvest program has been recognized nationally and internationally as a model. Each year, quotas are established for various zones to provide hunting opportunities for Florida residents and non-residents. Hunters can harvest two gators per permit. Over 3,400 alligators were taken in Florida in 2005.

Humans and alligators do coexist. To do so successfully, however, is up to us. By better understanding the habits and habitats of alligators, we can help to avoid tragic encounters with these primitive reptiles. They deserve our protection and certainly our respect!

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