Monday, May 28, 2012

Are there alligators in that lake?

In Florida, where there's water, there are gators

Simply Living
May 28, 2012

Alligators are scary.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates the state's population of the large-jawed reptiles to be 1.3 million. The fact that alligators occupy just about any soggy scrap of marshland, pond or river doesn't help their reputation as objects of fear. Ask any newcomer to the Sunshine State what they worry about most and, along with concerns over bugs and hurricanes, their answer will undoubtedly include alligator attacks.

I've always felt differently.

While acknowledging the power and predatory nature of these sharp-toothed animals, I've made it a point to educate myself about their habits, diet and — most importantly — the real (as opposed to perceived) threat alligators present to their human neighbors.

Because like it or not, we're neighbors.

People who choose to reside in a semi-tropical climate aren't just opting to enjoy warm-weather activities and sweet-smelling flowers. They are also choosing to live alongside the area's wildlife including scary-looking ones like gators.

Because I live next to a lake in which I take frequent dips, learning about alligators is especially relevant to me. But residing near water isn't a prerequisite to becoming educated about reptiles. Learning and living go hand-in-hand. The more you know about your surroundings and its inhabitants, the better able you are to enjoy and respect them.

Although Florida is home to many gators, only 22 people died from alligator attack between 1948 and 2010. During the same period, 333 people received unprovoked bites and another 184 people were bitten because they did something to taunt or provoke an attack.

These statistics gain even greater significance when you consider that more than 19 million people live in Florida year round and another 75 million visit the state annually. With such a large number of people and alligators sharing the same turf (and water), you'd expect the number of encounters to be much larger.

The fact is that the vast majority of alligators stay away from people.

Unless people feed them (which it is illegal as well as dangerous and foolish), alligators tend to retreat from humans instead of aggressively moving toward them. That has certainly been our experience over years of watching alligators in our own lake. During the past two decades, we've seen dozens of gators but we seldom have had cause to worry. On the rare occasions when a rogue reptile defies the norm by coming toward us when we're in the water, we report the animal to the Fish and Wildlife nuisance alligator hotline. After taking information by phone, the agency sends a trapper to capture and remove the potentially dangerous animal.

That's exactly what happened this month.

Ralph and I had been keeping our eyes on a relatively young gator that had been hanging around our swimming beach. Although the reptile was too little to pose a threat to an adult, our 2-year-old grandson seemed about the right size for a gator snack — not something any parent or grandparent wants to imagine. 
When our attempts to chase away the gator failed to frighten it, we turned to the Fish and Wildlife hotline.

Even small gators that act aggressively can pose a threat to little children
"A trapper will contact you within 24 hours," we were told and, sure enough, one did.

Jimmy Douglas Jr,. an alligator control agent out of Sumterville, arrived the next day to set a baited hook for the offending animal.

"Check the line first thing in the morning," he instructed us, "and call me if the bait is gone."

The bait — a smelly piece of meat suspended over the water from a large hook — did the trick.

"The bait's gone," we dutifully reported the next morning.

Unfortunately, the captured animal was too small to be the one we had been observing.

"This one's too little," we told Douglas when he came to take it away.

When we asked what he would do with the 3 1/2 -foot long critter, Douglas told us he'd let it go in a canal near his property.

"Florida law requires any alligator under 4 feet to be released," he said.

We were glad that it wouldn't be killed and that its release would be far away. Douglas set a second baited hook as we watched with mounting curiosity. Just how many gators lived in our lake, we wondered.

As it turns out, the answer is at least two.

By the following morning, a second gator — a 5-footer — had swallowed the bait. When Douglas came to remove it, the animal looked like the one that had acted aggressively.

Licensed trapper Jimmy Douglas removes a rogue alligator

Learning about the things that frighten us is one of the best ways to overcome fears. Alligators might be scary-looking animals, but they rarely pose a serious threat to people. When they do, it's good to know there's a government agency ready to step in and fix the problem. If a gator seems threatening to you, don't hesitate to call 1-866-FWC-GATOR. If the gator is deemed to be a threat to the public, a licensed trapper will be sent to remove it.

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