September 28, 2010
For thousands of years, alligators have flourished in many of the waterways of the South. With gator and human populations on the rise, we can expect more harrowing and sometimes grisly encounters.
There's probably no animal that's more identified with Florida than the American alligator. They're found in virtually every freshwater creek, river and lake and are also at home in brackish water, and contrary to what some people think, they will go into salt water on occasion.
Especially at the southern end of their range, alligators can be massive animals, like this 12-foot, 9-inch bull gator. Such an animal conditioned to view humans or pets as a source of food is dangerous indeed.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Courtney.
Though Florida has its share of alligators, it isn't the only state the reptiles call home: They're also found in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Wherever alligators are found, they command a healthy measure of respect.
We will never know how many Native Americans, or early settlers for that matter, had bad encounters with alligators, but the former Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (GFC) began keeping records of alligator attacks on humans in 1948. The results are scary.
There were only a few attacks on humans through the mid-1970s, probably because gator populations were low and rebuilding, but since then, both attacks and fatalities have soared. Through the end of 2007, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the successor to the GFC, has recorded 307 attacks and 22 fatalities.
In May 2006, the state of Florida experienced its deadliest week ever when three women died in gator attacks. They included a 23-year-old Tennessee woman who had just graduated from college, a 28-year-old Florida Atlantic University student and a 43-year-old woman from Dunedin. Other than being female, all they had in common were being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Florida, like most states that have alligators, has a program for the removal of any alligator over 4 feet in length that poses a threat to people or their animals.
Florida has a network of about 40 trappers licensed by the FWC to remove nuisance alligators.
Then, there's the late-summer hunting season open to the public. In 2008, the season ran from Aug. 15 to Oct. 31 on public waters. There were over 5,100 permits issued and each permit holder was allowed to kill up to two alligators.
Even with a system in place to deal with nuisance alligators and a statewide hunting season, there are all-too-frequent incidents where alligators and humans meet.
Sometimes they are face offs, such as a gator crawling into a back yard, garage, underneath a car or bringing traffic to a standstill by crawling onto a busy highway.
In one unusual encounter a few years ago, a homeowner and his wife were awakened to the sound of crashing glass. Believing the house was being broken into by a burglar, the husband, handgun in hand, carefully made his way to the kitchen. When he flipped on the kitchen light, the burglar turned out to be an 8-foot alligator lying on the floor. The homeowner shot the gator several times, then waited for the police and FWC to arrive. The gator had simply crawled to the house from a nearby lake, then battered its way through a single pane window and onto the kitchen floor.
Sometimes the encounter can be as harrowing and dangerous for nuisance trappers as it is for the gator.
Ronnie Braxton is 62 today, and for several years, he was the nuisance gator trapper. If a gator had to be caught and destroyed, he and his close friend and assistant, David Enfinger, were the go-to guys.
One day, Braxton got a call to remove a big gator from a farm pond in Jackson County several miles outside Marianna. Even though the gator was 9 feet in length and estimated to weigh at least 300 pounds, he figured it would be a pretty typical trapping operation -- go out on the lake well after dark, paddle up to him, gig him, play him down, kill him and be home before midnight. About the only thing that went according to plan was he and Enfinger went out after dark.
"We put the boat in about sundown and waited a couple of hours before we went out," Braxton recalls. "We spotted him right away on the surface. David eased me right up to him, but that's when things went wrong. I stuck the gig in him in the soft part of his hide between the head and front leg like you should and he took off."
What happened next almost ended in a catastrophe. The gig head was supposed to stick in the gator's soft tissue and come off when the gator fled, trailing a small nylon rope and buoy. Trappers then ease up on the buoy and rope, and try to get the gator to the boat where they put a noose around the jaws and head. But this time the gig head did not release.
With the gig stuck in the gator and Braxton holding onto the pole, the gator bolted and in less than a split second pulled Braxton off the bow into the darkness in a froth of churning water almost on top of the gator.
"I don't know how he didn't bite me, but I couldn't get back in that boat fast enough," he remembers. "That wasn't where I wanted to be."
Braxton said he and Enfinger eventually killed the gator and he was every bit as big as advertised.
On another occasion, Braxton and Enfinger were out attempting to remove a gator that had been hanging around some docks and residences. That night, Enfinger was on the bow and Braxton was the boat operator.
It was well after sundown when they spotted their quarry. They were both busy getting all their tools into position when Braxton picked up the bang stick, removed the safety and made only a short move, when the bang stick hit something and discharged, striking Enfinger at point-blank range.
The bang stick held a single 12-gauge shotgun shell with No. 4 shot. The pellets struck Enfinger in the chest, face and arm. Braxton immediately got Enfinger back to the boat landing and to a hospital in Pensacola. Doctors removed what pellets they could and discharged him. It was a narrow escape Braxton said he would never forget.
If you look at just the last 10 years in Florida (1998-2007), there have been 166 alligator attacks on residents and visitors. If you tracked down the survivors, I'll bet the majority of those who were bitten or attacked probably had no idea they were in harm's way up until the attack. They w
ere people going about life when the unexpected happened. They were doing such things as trimming plants near the water's edge, retrieving golf balls, walking their dogs, swimming, fishing, and a dozen other things.
One fisherman who had a chance encounter with what was likely a mammoth bull gator and lived to tell the story is 69-year-old Sam Crutchfield. He was wade-fishing when a gator believed to be 11 to 12 feet long attacked him.
Crutchfield is a retired boat captain and guide but still loves to fish. In April 2006, Crutchfield and a friend were in an area where they had caught bream previously.
"My buddy and I got out of the boat and started fly-fishing. I had a rope tied from me to the boat, and as I fished, I pulled the boat along," Crutchfield remembers. "I hadn't even seen a gator. I remember stepping in water that was a little deeper than I usually wade in, about 3 inches over my belt, and then something grabbed me around my right hip like a vise and wouldn't let go.
"I knew instantly it was a gator and started beating him with my fist. He finally let go and I took off for the boat. At first my partner didn't believe me."
Doctors gave Crutchfield antibiotics. Crutchfield said within a day his hip, groin and upper leg turned almost black from bruising. It's standard policy to kill any alligator that attacks a person, but FWC officers and a trapper weren't able to this time. When they went back that night, they counted more than 100 alligators 10 feet in length and longer in the area where Crutchfield was bitten.
It was estimated, based on the width of the bite on Crutchfield's leg, that the gator may have been 11 1/2 to 12 feet in length or longer. A few months after the attack, an alligator hunter participating in the statewide season on Istokpoga killed a huge bull gator in the same area where Crutchfield was attacked. That gator measured 13 feet, 9 inches and weighed 780 pounds.
Just how much pressure a big gator can exact is amazing. In 2003, three researchers -- one each from the University of Florida, Florida State University and another from Arizona, devised an expensive set of bite force bars. They tried the bars on several critters, including a 12-foot alligator at a St. Augustine alligator farm. The bull gator clamped down with an agonizing force of 2,960 pounds. That's considerably more than hyenas (1,000 pounds), lions (940 pounds) and dusky sharks (330 pounds).
If there's one single act that will get a person arrested in Florida in short order, it's the act of feeding a gator. Feeding an alligator causes it to associate people with food and lose all apprehension of approaching people. A number of years ago, there was a much publicized incident in which trappers had baited several hooks in an effort to catch and remove a big hand-fed gator in Sarasota County. Someone kept sabotaging their hooksets, but no one told a young girl visiting the park about the gator. She was killed by an 11-foot, 3-inch alligator when she went swimming. It was the same gator targeted for removal.
Although I wasn't bitten, I had a similar run-in with an alligator that had been fed on Tyndall AFB in eastern Bay County several years ago. A friend and I had walked a well-worn path behind a drone launch complex to a canal to fish. We chose the place because the wind was high and it was the only place I could think of where we could fish and be out of the wind.
As we stood casting on the edge of the canal bank, I spied a 6- to 7-foot gator 50 yards down the canal. "Don't worry," I told my friend. "They won't hunt you."
Looking back up the canal, I noticed the gator had disappeared. I was convinced it was scared of us and had taken off. I cast once or twice more, and then as I went to step, I realized my right diving booty -- the shoes I wear wade-fishing -- was hung on something. I casually glanced down and almost had a heart attack. My right foot was stuck because the alligator I had seen was directly between my legs, its left foot pinning my right foot. I would tell you that I kept my composure and slowly moved my feet, but that's a stretch. The truth is, I yelled, threw myself backward and pitched my rod and reel. The gator made a large boil and went back up the canal.
It was only after the incident, when I regained my wits that I figured out what had happened. The worn path, a building nearby occupied five days a week and several sandwich bags near the path were all the proof I needed. There's no question the gator was used to being fed and he thought I was the meal guy.
One thing that alligators do quite often is kill dogs. Some breeds like Labrador retrievers love the water, and in fact, more Labs are killed by hungry gators than any other breed. However, no dog that goes near a big gator is safe.
All you have to do is consider the story of Flojo, a prized purebred Walker hunting dog belonging to Rufus Godwin of Chumuckla in Santa Rosa County. Godwin fox hunted with Flojo during the summer of 1995 in the Blackwater River State Forest. Flojo wore an electronic tracking collar, but one night the signal stopped and the dog seemed to vanish into thin air.
A few days later, Godwin returned to the same area and picked up the faint signal of Flojo's collar. He and a friend followed the signal down the side of a hill and through the underbrush to Coldwater Creek, then across to a small oxbow lake.
"When we walked up to the little lake and turned on the receiver, it went wild beeping. That's when I knew an alligator had her," he said.
The next day, Godwin, his son and two gator trappers went back and pulled an old bull gator from the lake. When the 10-foot, 11-inch gator was pulled from the water, they found it had not only eaten Godwin's dog, but the gator's stomach contained pieces and parts of six other dog collars, including one collar from a dog that had been missing for 14 years. An estimated 25 dogs had disappeared from that section of the forest over the years; most of them were thought to have been stolen.
One thing that sent a chill through everyone was the dog-eating gator lived its life only one-fourth mile down the creek from a popular swimming area. However, no one had ever reported seeing the gator. It apparently had remained hidden until barking dogs signaled feeding time.