Ed Ricciuti, Coastal Connecticut’s contributing editor for nature, the outdoors and science, has a new book on real urban jungle, the establishment of large, potentially dangerous wild animals in cities and suburbs. in this chapter, he recounts the recovery of the american alligator from extinction, a process in which he was involved, and how this toothy american original now threatens life and limb in our southeastern states.
If you live in the South and a twelve-foot American alligator is paddling around your pool or basking by your barbecue, you can blame me. During the late 1960s, when I was a curator at the New York Zoological Society, I was assigned as a representative to an organization called the American Alligator Council. I served with state and federal wildlife biologists, other zoo curators, wildlife law enforcement officers, alligator farmers, and, I suspect, one or two former gator poachers reborn as conservationists. Our goal was to help state wildlife agencies develop recovery programs for the American alligator, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had declared an endangered species in 1967.
During the late 1960s, we observed populations of alligators in many different habitats from one end of the range map to the other. We watched gators glide among the floating peat islands of the Okefenokee Swamp. We checked alligator nests in the sawgrass prairies of Florida’s Everglades. We observed the surrealistic sight of alligators, little changed from their Mesozoic ancestors, basking on mud banks at the Kennedy Space Center, in the shadow of the massive assembly building where the Apollo/Saturn vehicles were put together before rocketing spaceward. In the Florida Panhandle, we tracked alligators along the sinuous bends of the Apalachicola River winding through the national forest of the same name. From the long, flat ridges, or cheniers, rising above the marshes of Cameron Parish on Louisiana’s border with Texas, we watched gators in the state-owned Rockefeller Refuge, where wildlife coexisted quite compatibly with functioning oil rigs.
At the time, only forty thousand alligators remained in Louisiana. By 1972, Cameron Parish alone had so many alligators that the state opened a thirteenday hunting season there, eventually expanded statewide by 1981 as the alligator population increased and spread out. The explosive growth of Louisiana’s alligator population reflects what happened throughout alligator territory. Few wildlife-conservation efforts have met such rapid and massive success as the restoration to abundance—indeed, superabundance—of the American alligator. Within twenty years of the species being declared endangered, southern states were knee-deep in alligators. The thunderous bellows of gators seeking mates boomed in the night from coastal North Carolina to the Rio Grande in Texas.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately five million gators—two million in Louisiana and more than a million in Florida alone—were swimming in waters of ten states. Concurrently, the southeastern states experienced a huge influx of humans migrating to the burgeoning urban areas and retirement communities of the Sun Belt. The population of Florida alone more than doubled from 1970 to a total of almost sixteen million in 2000, according to the United States Census. It is not an exaggeration to say that the use of air conditioning has brought millions of people within reach of alligator jaws.
Those jaws are of ancient design. To quote the website of the theme park and entertainment giant SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment: “Alligators are one animal that has changed very little since the prehistoric days.” Alligators, along with all crocodilians, belong to a group of reptiles known as the archosaurs, the ruling reptiles (from archon, Greek for ruler, and sauros, Greek for lizard). Other major groups of animals that arose from the archosaurs include the dinosaurs and, biologist now recognize, birds. Along with its primitive appearance, by anyone’s measure the alligator is an exceedingly large as well as primeval beast. Many adult males approach fourteen feet long and one thousand pounds in weight. They can get even bigger, approaching twenty feet, equaling some of the biggest crocodiles in size. Socketed in their jaws are eighty or so replaceable teeth, all of them cone-shaped and without differentiation as in mammals. Development of socketed teeth by the ancestors of crocodilians and dinosaurs was a major step up on the evolutionary ladder.
Some truly giant Mesozoic crocodilians apparently preyed on dinosaurs. Among them was Sarcosuchus imperator, a crocodilian forty feet long and weighing up to eighteen thousand pounds, with six-foot jaws. This bus-sized prehistoric crocodile probably lurked at the water’s edge and grabbed small dinosaurs when they came to drink or feed on water plants. It is not difficult to imagine an alligator considering using its socketed teeth on a human at water’s edge; to Sarcosuchus we’d be viewed as a small bipedal dinosaur that might make a decent meal. Alligators do not immediately home in on humans as prey, the way many crocodiles do. Still, they kill people, and attacks of all kinds, both predatory and defensive, are increasing as gator and human share living space. Whether familiarization with people will increase attacks even more is uncertain but probable. Especially in the water, a hungry alligator is unlikely to give a human a pass if the opportunity for an easy meal presents itself. Dogs and cats? For alligators, they are munchies.
In the wild, alligators eat virtually anything that moves,and often things that do not, in the form of carrion. Young alligators snap up fish, insects, snails, crustaceans, and worms. As they grow in size, so does the bulk of the animals they choose as prey. Larger gators graduate to eating turtles, wading and water birds, deer, raccoons, otters, feral pigs, and even an occasional Florida panther, a subspecies of cougar.
The jaws of the alligator are adapted to crush and grip prey, and they close with enormous force. In 2002, a Florida State University biology professor, Greg Erickson, conducted an experiment at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park that registered the bite of alligators with a measuring device at the end of an engineered pole, seven feet long. The device consisted of metal “bite bars” resembling large tuning forks. The bars, which were covered in leather to prevent damage to the alligators’ teeth, contained strain gauges that measure force. Not surprisingly, the bigger the alligator, the harder the bite. A 665-pound alligator, twelve feet long, bit down with a force of 2,125 pounds. Erickson equated the effort it would take to escape from the creature’s jaws to lifting a small pickup truck. In comparison, a lion has a bite force of about 940 pounds. The bone-crushing bite of a hyena is about 1,000 pounds. The dusky shark achieves about 330 pounds.
While the muscles that enable alligator jaws to snap shut with crushing power are exceptionally strong, those that open the mouth are relatively weak. This is the secret of why alligator wrestlers can hold a gator’s jaws closed with one hand. The uniform dentition of the crocodilians is not built for chewing but for crushing, gripping, and ripping off pieces of flesh. They dispatch small prey, then gulp it down whole. Alligators often kill larger animals by holding them underwater to drown. Medium-sized prey or big pieces of meat are manipulated around in the mouth until positioned to swallow. If a victim is too large to swallow, the alligator performs a “death roll.” It grabs a mouthful of flesh or an appendage and then spins round and round amid a cloud of bubbles and swirling water until the piece detaches from the body. A scientific study showed that during the roll, the alligator rotates on the longitudinal axis of its body powered by flexing and canting its head and tail.
Lazing in the sun, an alligator looks sluggish and slow moving. Far from it. When need be, an alligator moves with surprising speed, in and out of the water. While tales of alligators swimming at thirty miles an hour are balderdash, even though repeated regularly on the Web, alligators can cruise at close to ten miles an hour. Unlike almost all other reptiles, crocodilians can raise themselves on their legs and thus move with surprising speed on the ground. Alligators can launch themselves into short overland bursts of up to nine miles an hour.
Alligators and their relatives also lunge explosively. I once had a two-foot caiman, a close tropical American cousin of the alligator, in my bathtub. (At one time in my life, people who became tired of their exotic pets often deposited them with me for transfer to zoos.) From the floor of the tub, where it was resting, it lunged up and over the rim like a scaly rocket and nailed me on the arm with its teeth. To get at me, the creature covered a distance longer than its own length in a single burst. It is that speed than makes the alligator and its kin effective ambush predators, lying in wait by the waterside for an unwary animal to approach.
What you have in the American alligator is a prehistoric eating machine, a flesh-and-blood Godzilla, minus the fiery breath, a prehistoric survivor ensconced by the millions among gated communities, schools, shopping centers, golf courses, and parks of uptown and downtown inhabited by like numbers of people. In October 2013, a six-foot gator ambled near the automatic sliding door of a Wal-Mart supercenter store in Apopka, Florida. As customers scattered, while the door opened and closed, employees initiated a lockdown. The gator finally left for nearby woods, and was later captured by authorities.
As far as humans interacting with alligators are concerned, Florida is the epicenter. The Sunshine State has all the elements that create conflict between people and alligators, and it has them to the max. Florida has a corner on confrontations with the reptiles, ranging from alligators making a nuisance of themselves to alligators killing people. No one has ever been killed by an alligator in Texas. One person has been killed in Georgia, a woman attacked and eaten by an eight-foot gator in a swanky housing development near Savannah. But, by and large, hardly anyone gets killed by alligators outside Florida. Since record-keeping began in 1948, twenty-two people have died there in the jaws of alligators, according to the latest figures from the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. During that same period, more than three hundred unprovoked attacks have occurred, about five per year. Reports of alligators that are scaring people or just making a pest of themselves—“nuisance alligators”—number about sixteen thousand a year.
Contrast those figures with statistics from Louisiana, which has even more alligators than Florida but much fewer people, less than five million. Louisiana wildlife authorities receive less than a quarter as many nuisance alligator reports as Florida, and it is not because alligators are better behaved there. As far as anyone knows, no one has been killed by an alligator in Louisiana. You can count the number of recorded attacks on the fingers of your two hands and probably have a digit or two left over. Attacks do seem to be increasing, ever so slightly, which may not be surprising given that the state’s population has risen almost 50 percent since 2000. By and large, however, alligator attacks are a rarity in the land of poboys and jambalaya.
“The historically low attack rate in Louisiana is attributed to a history of intense hunting”—this from a 2005 paper on alligator damage control by two biologists for the State of Florida, Allan R. Woodward and Dennis N. David. They are correct, but only in part. The main reason why people are more likely to be bitten by alligators in Florida than Louisiana, however, may be sociological, having to do with the nature of people themselves. Few areas of the country have a stronger hunting tradition than Louisiana. Large numbers of people, notably members of the Cajun community, but people of other ethnicity as well, live amid the bayous that are prime alligator country. Fishing and hunting are an integral part of their lifestyle. They also turn the tables on alligators. Alligator meat is a delicacy of Cajun cuisine, eaten in about every way imaginable, from barbecued ribs to jambalayas and gumbos.
By contrast, few people—except for outlaws, refugees, and outcasts—have ever lived by choice in the heart of the Everglades or Okefenokee. Certainly, many native Floridians, especially rural types, are accustomed to dealing with alligators. They are in a minority of residents there today. Millions of Florida residents are city slickers from the North, a far cry from Florida swampers or bayou-wise Cajuns who have grown up with gators.
No self-respecting Louisiana Cajun of sound mind and body is going to get nailed by an alligator unless he deliberately risks it. Florida, however, is full of transplants from places like Brooklyn and Des Moines. Until most of them moved south, they never encountered alligators, except perhaps in a zoo. To phrase it nicely, some of them are inclined to act in an unwise fashion around gators. To put it more bluntly, they often place themselves at risk by dumb mistakes such as swimming where alligators lurk or feeding them for fun.
A naive snowbird who is chomped upon while feeding a gator can plead ignorance. It is difficult to imagine the embarrassment when an old Florida hand suffers the same fate, then is charged with a misdemeanor for feeding an alligator. It happened in 2012 when the operator of an airboat tour lost his left hand after trying to lure a gator to the surface of the water for his clients to see.
Although water for drinking, agriculture, and industry is at a premium because of Florida’s population growth, development has added immeasurably to the aquatic habitat suitable for alligators. A Guide to Living with Alligators, produced by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, notes that “the growing number of people living and recreating near water has led to a steady rise in the number of alligator-related complaints…Many new residents seek waterfront homes, resulting in increased interactions between people and alligators.”
Throughout Florida, housing developments, parks, and golf courses are dotted with artificial ponds. More to the point, South Florida, in particular, is laced with so many canals that Venice might seem dry by comparison. It has canals for flood control, irrigation, recreation, navigation, and to provide housing developments with waterfront, which raises the value of real estate. The South Florida Water Management System alone operates twenty-six hundred miles of canals to provide flood control, water supply, navigation, water quality improvements, and environmental management over its sixteen-county, seventeen-thousand-square mile region.
Its creation was a monumental exercise in civil engineering. Canals range in depth from a few feet to thirty-five feet, plenty of water—and a host of fish ranging from mullet to introduced tropical peacock bass—for alligators. Humans and their technology have created bed and board for alligators so bountiful and welcoming that it is unparalleled as habitat. Perhaps never since crocodilians appeared along with the early dinosaurs, about 250 million years ago, has one of their ilk had it so good.
The irony of a creature that would fit in with the dinosaurs benefiting from modern civil engineering is delicious. The first crocodilians probably were land animals. Some had hind legs much longer than their front legs, indicating they probably were swift runners. Gradually, legs shortened, and many of the crocodilians adapted to aquatic or semiaquatic life, a move that may have saved them from the cataclysm that claimed the dinosaurs. Long-legged crocodiles were replicated in a SyFi channel movie, Dinocroc, about a genetically manipulated monster. SyFi also aired Supergator, about an immense bioengineered alligator. The two monsters eventually battled in Dinocroc vs. Supergator.
Watching the movie, it occurred to me that I had once seen supergators of sorts that were actual byproducts of modern nuclear technology—the stuff of science fiction. While working with the Alligator Council, I visited the Savannah River Plant of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, a site in South Carolina that refined nuclear weapons materials. Just as in nuclear power plants, water flushed through the site’s reactors acted as a coolant. Spent heated water at Savannah River was cooled in a canal and a reservoir, which spilled over a dam into a second pond. By the time the water reached the second lake, it was cool enough for fish. And for alligators that came there to feed on the fish.
Starting in the 1960s, researchers at the plant’s ecology laboratory began to study what happened when the heated waters created unique gradients of water temperature never before experienced by alligators. Big gators there seemed less reliant on the sun’s warmth, basking less than usual. Larger males stayed active in the warm waters year round, instead of holing up and lapsing into a winter slowdown typical of alligators in the northern reaches of their range. Food in the form of fish and turtles was also continually available. As a result, the alligators grew more rapidly and reached exceedingly large sizes. Talk about supergators. Filmmakers missed the boat on this one.
The real-life supergators, the outsized Cretaceous crocodilians and giant crocodilians that tended to frequent land, perished with the dinosaurs. The ancestors of today’s crocodiles, gavials, caimans, and alligators remained. Perhaps smaller size had something to do with their escape from dinosaur Armageddon. Once the dinosaurs bit the bullet at the end of the Cretaceous period, no prey remained large enough to cure the hunger pangs of the huge crocodilians. Those that survived were species that could manage by eating water animals such as fish. Life in the water in general seems to have weathered the storm that brought down the curtain on the Cretaceous. If any crocodilians remained on land, they could not compete with the mammals that claimed the earth once the reign of the dinosaurs ended, so they disappeared as well.
Most of the crocodilians that survived the Cretaceous were little different in appearance and behavior than modern species. The model that enabled them to survive back then still works, even in habitat shared by a space center. The first true alligators appeared either in North America or Asia almost forty million years ago. Fossils have been found on both continents, and the only other living alligator is the Chinese alligator, much smaller than the American but otherwise a lookalike. Originally, there seem to have been two additional species of alligator in North America. As climate cooled and dried, only the present-day American alligator survived, in the warm, moist Southeast.
In places like the Okefenokee and Everglades, the American alligator is what scientists call a keystone species, which means they have profound impact on other species within their wildlife community. As a top predator, they influence the numbers of prey species. They also provide sanctuary for many other species seeking to survive drought. Adult gators dig holes that fill with water and provide a place to wallow and, in effect, hole up. Shaped like washbasins, gator holes may be twelve feet deep and many yards wide.
Although the resident alligator keeps the water clear of excessive vegetation, plants root and grow in the muddy soil thrown around the rim. Eventually, small trees arise, in which wading birds often nest. Bird droppings fertilize the soil below and encourage more growth. Meanwhile, fish wash into the hole and turtles enter, providing food for the gator. During droughts, the holes may be the only water source around for mammals and birds. Otters and raccoons come to drink. Gar and catfish lie close to the bottom ooze. Leopard frogs and pig frogs hide in the syrupy, green slime at water’s edge. The frogs, fish, and turtles that escape the alligator survive to repopulate the surrounding wetlands when the rains return. Even more importantly, the water of the gator hole is a refuge for diatoms, protozoans, and minute crustaceans that are the first link in the wetlands food chain.
The evolutionary closeness between avian archosaurs, birds, and crocodilians like alligators is evinced by the fact that few other reptiles vocalize. The alligator does so in spades. There are two sounds made by animals that when I first heard them in the night truly elevated my hackles and made me feel as vulnerable as an australopithecine alone on the savanna. One was the thunder of lions on the African plains. The other was the mating bellow of a bull gator in the depths of the Okefenokee. Imagine it. In the blackness, the gator fills its lungs with air, puffing the sides of its blue-black body. Ripples fan out as the creature lifts its head and expels a blast of air from its lungs, which vibrate vocal folds in its neck expanding and contracting the skin over its throat. A deep, grumbling roar echoes through the swamp, followed by another and another, each seemingly louder than the one before. No other crocodilian makes such a thunderous vocal statement.
Alligator is an English corruption of the name the first Europeans to explore the Southeast gave to the big, toothy monster they saw prowling swamps and marshes: el lagarto, Spanish for “the lizard.” At the time, alligators were the most numerous large animal in many parts of their range, which stretched from the Dismal Swamp on the border of North Carolina and Virginia to Texas. Today, they have reclaimed habitat in most of their original range. The states in which they live are North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and a very small area of southeastern Oklahoma.
When he traveled through Florida from 1774 to 1776, the naturalist William Bartram was amazed by the proliferation of alligators there. They were so numerous in the St. Johns River, he wrote in one of his journals, “that it would have been easy to have walked across on their heads.”
Within a few decades of Bartram’s observation, the alligator, like so many other wild animals, took on an economic significance. People discovered that its hide made beautiful leather, at first for saddlebags, then for products from purses to shoes. Hide hunting gained momentum throughout the nineteenth century. Year after year, the slaughter continued and alligators began to disappear from places in which they had abounded. Meanwhile, human activities destroyed alligator habitat. As a result of supply
and demand, hides became more valuable. By 1969, the price was more than eight dollars a foot, in that era’s money. As new laws restricted hunting, gator poachers, swamp-savvy and canny, prospered. Many traders of hides turned smuggler. Many times, with wildlife agents, I saw the seized hides of alligators, neatly bundled, some sporting feet and claws. The illegal trade prompted bans even on the sale of finished alligator products, spearheaded by New York City, a center of the trade.
Protection worked better than anyone expected, and alligators explosively procreated themselves back into abundance. States reopened tightly regulated hunting seasons, and alligator farms turned out hides from pen-raised gators. The problem of how to save the alligator was solved. The next problem was how to keep people safe from alligators.
Just as it is with cougars and coyotes, the rate of attacks on humans by alligators is going up. In 2005, Ricky L. Langley, a physician with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, produced a research paper, “Alligator Attacks on Humans in the United States.” He made no bones about it. “Encounters with alligators are increasing in the United States,” he declared in the first sentence of his paper, going on to say that “as human population encroaches on the habitat of alligators, attacks and nuisance complaints increase.”
Langley queried wildlife agencies in alligator-range states, but focused on Florida, which has the best records on alligator attacks. As noted above, that state has been keeping a tally on attacks since 1948. Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division, in comparison, began keeping records of attacks in 1980. Langley stated that from 1948 to 2004, “376 injuries and 15 deaths have been reported in the United States as a result of encounter with alligators.” The total changed rapidly, lending credence to Langley’s warning about the increasing frequency of attacks. Within eight years, the number of people killed by alligators had jumped by almost half that since record keeping began.
Three of those deaths, all women, occurred within a single week during May of 2006. First to die was a twentyeight year-old jogger out for an evening run through an area of Broward County where housing developments have replaced Everglades alligator habitat. Authorities theorized she might have been dragged into the water when she stopped to cool her feet in a canal, where an alligator, almost ten feet long, was later killed and found to have her arms in its stomach. Four days later, the partly eaten body of a forty-three-year old woman was discovered in a canal near St. Petersburg. Her arm and hand were later recovered from the insides of an eight-and-a-halffoot alligator. The same day as her body was found, a twenty-three-year-old, snorkeling in the Ocala National Forest in Marion County, was attacked by an eleven-footer. Her husband and a friend spotted the animal with the woman in its jaws. They battled the gator over her body, which they managed to extract, but the victim was already dead from wounds to body and head and apparent drowning.
Another spate of attacks occurred during July 2012, when two teenagers were injured during one week in different parts of Florida. One of the attacks illustrates how alligators often venture into saline estuaries, where they prey on animals such as crabs and, at least on this occasion, people. A fifteen-year-old boy was spearfishing in only three feet of water in a brackish creek at Keaton Beach, in the Big Bend area of North Florida, when a ten-foot alligator grabbed him across the chest. Thinking it was a shark, he screamed for his grandfather, who was nearby in a boat, and started struggling in an effort to escape the gator’s grip. The boy’s fight paid off and the alligator let go. Later, the youth and his grandfather returned to the creek, saw a gator in the same area, and shot it to death.
The other teen attack victim was swimming with friends in the Caloosahatchee River in Moore Haven, on the southwest shore of Lake Okeechobee. The seventeen year-old lost his arm below the elbow during a valiant battle with an alligator that saw him survive the feared death roll. Twice. The alligator struck the teen seconds after one of his friends saw the creature and shouted a warning. The victim credited his ability to fight back to what he had learned from television shows—apparently the accurate kind—about alligators. Anticipating the roll, he locked his legs around the alligator’s body, according to news reports of the incident. As the alligator rolled a second time, he managed to break loose, leaving his arm with the reptile. He screamed to his friends to get help as he made it to shore, where he stumbled and then fell to the ground.
The youth told reporters that he fought to keep calm rather than hyperventilate, and used spider webs he found on the ground to stop the bleeding. His arm was found inside the alligator, an eleven-footer, when it was tracked down and killed by authorities.
A few months later, in September, near Orlando, an eighty-four-year-old woman lost her arm when an alligator dragged her into a canal that ran immediately next to residences in a mobile home park. A neighbor, who was sitting in his home having coffee, saw her foundering in the four-foot deep water. He jumped in and pulled her out, only then seeing she was missing an arm below the shoulder. As he held her in his arms waiting for help to arrive, she mumbled “Gator,” according to a media account. The woman, described as petite, was a widow who had moved to Florida from Maine after the death of her husband. When rescued, the woman was wearing just a slip. The rest of her clothes were discovered on a nearby dock, leading to speculation that she might have been disoriented and gone for a swim. The canal is linked to a lake with a large population of alligators and not regularly used for swimming.
Another attack on an elderly woman, eighty-three, resulted in one of the few fatalities caused by alligators outside Florida. Her body was discovered floating in the water of a lagoon at a high-end gated community called the Landings, near Savannah, Georgia, in October 2007. Her left arm, right hand, and a foot were missing. The body parts were later found in the stomach of an eight-foot alligator killed by a licensed alligator trapper. Officials speculated she was walking near the water when attacked. A Canadian, the woman was visiting the area, house-sitting for her son, and unfamiliar with alligators.
A bizarre death by alligator occurred in 2007 when a fugitive from the law’s long arm ended up as gator bait. Surprised by police while breaking into a car in the parking lot of a Miami-Dade County convention center, he jumped into a pond, started screaming, and disappeared. His body was later found covered by alligators. In his haste, he apparently missed a sign by the pond warning that alligators prowled its waters. Jail would have been a better fate.
Golfers and alligators are a poor mix, given that attacks often occur around ponds and other water hazards on the links. Almost 10 percent of the alligator attacks analyzed in the Langley study occurred while the victim was retrieving a golf ball from water. It happened to a seventy-five-year-old man who went to pick up a ball from the edge of an irrigation pond. As he turned to rejoin his friends, an alligator lunged from the water, grabbed the golfer behind the knee, and threw him to the ground. There, the gator clamped its jaws on the man’s shoulder as fellow golfers tried to pull him out of the animal’s grasp. A frantic tug-of-war ensued as the alligator dragged its prey halfway into the water, then, lucky for the man, let go. Trappers later killed two alligators in the pond, one nine feet, the other six feet. The contents of the larger alligator’s stomach indicated that someone had been feeding it. The golfer was severely slashed and bitten to the bone but recovered.
The damage that the crushing jaws of an alligator can cause may be much more than at first meets the eye, warns Langley in his study, noting that “massive internal injuries may occur.” Beyond trauma lurks even more insidious danger. Many types of bacteria and other microbes, some of which can cause serious infections, have been cultured from the mouths of alligators, making treatments with antibiotics and other medications necessary, along with surgery.
Statistics from Langley’s study show that the limbs are by far the parts of the body most often injured by alligator attacks. More males than females are victims. Of the 376 nonfatal cases studied, males were targets in 257, perhaps because more men than women engage in outdoor activities that bring them within range of gators, at least historically. Langley analyzed what victims were doing when attacked and found that the outdoor recreation topping the list—no surprise—was swimming, at 16.7 percent. Fishing (9.9 percent) was next, followed by retrieving golf balls (9.5 percent), wading (5.3 percent), and snorkeling (4.3 percent). Recreating aside, stupidity on the part of the victims can be blamed for the most attacks. More than 17 percent of the victims were messing around with the alligator that bit them, trying to catch or otherwise handle it. At the bottom of the list were gardening at water’s edge, being on the bank for whatever reason, working on or falling out of a boat, walking near the water, and waterskiing or canoeing.
Langley’s figures on the timing of nonfatal attacks is especially interesting, challenging conventional wisdom that the hours of darkness are most dangerous, because that is when alligators are most active. Ninety-seven of the attacks occurred between 6:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M., while 172 took place between 6:00 A.M. and 6:00 P.M.
It stands to reason that small alligators usually bite humans out of fear, not hunger or aggression. Indeed, Langley’s research indicates that if an alligator is less than eight feet long it will probably bite only once. That fits the scenario of a defensive bite and retreat from perceived danger. Even a pint-size gator, however, can deliver a painful wound. When large alligators attack, on the other hand, they usually mean business, biting repeatedly. Fully a third of the attacks studied by Langley involved more than one bite, and instead were fully mounted attacks often ending in serious injury or death. Such attacks, he suggests, may be attributed to predatory feeding behavior.
Over the years, apologists for alligators have claimed that serious attacks often come from females defending young, or individuals of either sex defending territory. Not so, says the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management (ICWDM.org), a nonprofit site that provides advice on animal threats, developed from solid scientific research. Based at the University of Nebraska, it is associated with researchers at several other prestigious universities as well. “Contrary to popular belief,” states its document on alligators, “few attacks can be attributed to wounded or territorial alligators or females defending their nests or young.”
More often than not, when the bodies of alligators that have attacked people are necropsied, they turn out to be physically sound, not undernourished or sick. A territorial defense by an alligator usually involves considerable sound and fury, more bluster than battery. An alligator hoping to deter an interloper will mount a highly conspicuous display atop the water, complete with hissing and snorts. When hunting prey, on the other hand, alligators engage in sneak attacks, staying out of sight until they launch an overwhelming assault. The teenager who lost his arm to an alligator in Moore Haven was unaware of its presence until his friends sounded the alarm. Almost all victims of attacks were similarly oblivious to the threat until it materialized.
In the southern portions of their range, such as South Florida, alligators may be active year-round. Mostly, alligators handle cold weather by lapsing into a state of dormancy, during which their metabolic processes slow. They may remain under water or lie on the bottom for long periods of time or den up in a burrow.
Even if territoriality is not a motivating factor in most attacks, their increased activity when alligators emerge from dormancy increases the chances of human encounters. Activity mounts during the spring seasons of courtship and mating, when alligators, their sex hormones churning, move about and are more agitated than at any other time of year. Even smaller, non-breeding gators are caught up in the excitement, as many of them are displaced by the movement of their larger relatives. Perhaps it was not coincidence that the deaths of three Floridian women attacked by alligators in one week occurred in May, the height of the breeding season.
While the possibility that predator attacks by a large, hungry alligator are a fact of life anywhere alligators and people exist together, bites from chance encounters are more routine. And incidents in which alligators become a nuisance are commonplace. Most complaints about alligators—as opposed to violent episodes—emanate from places such as backyard ponds, canals, ditches, and streams, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The agency notes that other likely situations in which conflicts may develop are “when alligators wander into garages, swimming pools and golf course ponds.” People also frequently encounter alligators when the animals leave the water to bask in the sun or are moving between wetlands.