Consider where you live and how your home and lifestyle interacts with the surrounding natural world. Now, think about what that world contains in terms of wildlife. Depending on where you live, this could mean ‘nuisance’ animals as commonplace (and relatively harmless) as raccoons or opossums. Nuisance wildlife is generally defined as wildlife that causes or has the capacity to cause property damage, or that presents a threat to public safety or causes annoyance within, under or upon a building. Sure, it’s a hassle to clean up after a troop of raccoons raids your trash cans, but for residents of the state of Florida, nuisance animal concerns can go well past fuzzy nighttime bandits and into significantly more dramatic—and potentially dangerous—territory.
We’re talking about alligators, of course. While generally shy of humans, the state’s indigenous reptiles do represent a very real threat to life and limb – and with real estate development pushing into natural habitats and bringing humans and pets into closer and more frequent contact with crocodilians, it pays to be aware of the danger that contact can pose. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Florida’s “alligator country” includes every county in the state, and contains well over 1 million wild gators that, when thought of in relation to the state’s human population, comes out to a ratio of about one alligator for every 15 residents.
And alligators aren’t the only crocodilians that make their home in Florida’s waterways and semi-tropical landscape; their cousin the caiman is here too. Caiman are generally smaller and less fierce than gators, and are found mostly in the southern part of the state. Native to Central and South America, they likely gained a foothold in Florida after being brought here as pets and then released into the wild after their owners had second thoughts. Another much larger and more aggressive gator relative is the crocodile, which, while very rare, has been sighted in the brackish coastal waters in the extreme southern tip of the state.
Gator? I Hardly Know ‘Er
Overseeing all these scaly goings-on is the FWC, a state government agency dedicated to the management and regulation of Florida’s fish and wildlife resources. The agency consists of six separate divisions, including the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the Division of Hunting and Game Management, the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, the Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management, the Division of Marine Fisheries Management, and the Division of Law Enforcement.
To monitor and manage the Sunshine State’s sizeable reptilian population, the FWC maintains its own Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, or SNAP. According to the FWC, the program received 13,962 complaints concerning gators at least four feet long that resulted in the removal of 7,513 alligators—and that was just in 2015. Not too bad for an animal that was once on the endangered species list! The American alligator was removed from the endangered list in 1987, after being nearly eradicated through hunting and habitat destruction. Since then, their numbers have increased to a point that they are a nuisance at times and must be properly dealt with to ensure the safety of those who may come into contact with them.
Most wild animals—including alligators—do their best to avoid people, even when the animals’ roaming, feeding, or breeding territory overlaps with human habitations. Nevertheless, contact does happen sometimes, and the result can be tragic. The mid-2016 death of a child taken by an alligator in a pond at a Disney-owned resort near Orlando reminds us in the soberest way that encounters with local wildlife can prove fatal, even in densely-populated and developed areas.
Living Side By Side
The first step to dealing with potentially dangerous wildlife is, by far, education. Getting educated about one’s surroundings and what threats they could possibly contain gives residents a realistic understanding of what could occur, and how to avoid mishap or tragedy.
Alligators show up in residential areas for many reasons. Environmental factors such as a condo development being built in proximity to nesting areas, or even a recent storm or flood could very well be the reasons why you’ve found a gator on your golf course, or even worse, in your backyard. More troublingly, factors such as people keeping or treating alligators as pets and subsequently abandoning them because of the animal’s increasing size or cost also contributes to the nuisance issue. (According to the FWC, female alligators rarely exceed 10 feet in length, but males can grow significantly larger. The Florida state record for length in a male gator is just over 14 feet. The state record for weight is a whopping 1,043lbs.)
Abandoned gators arguably pose an even greater risk to humans and pets than their wild counterparts because they’re less wary of people, having grown accustomed to the interaction. Their lack of natural fear of humans and human habitations can spell disaster when an abandoned gator gets hungry and decides to go back to its most familiar food source. According to Tampa-based animal care specialist Cayle Pearson of Animal Trappers, “It’s illegal to engage an alligator in any way in the state of Florida, and that includes feeding. An alligator that has been fed loses any natural fear of humans, and then views people as a potential food source; a dangerous combination of factors.” The FWC also advises disposing of fish scraps in garbage cans at boat ramps and fish camps. “Do not throw them into the water. Although you are not intentionally feeding alligators when you do this, the result can be the same. “
Alligators tend to move about at dusk and during the night while hunting for food, and during mating season in April and May. Their diet depends on availability, and they will eat anything up to and including other gators, as well as waterfowl, small mammals, and yes, dogs and cats. Most community newsletters encourage pet owners to stay well away from any water’s edge while walking pets or minding small children, especially after twilight. Alligators can easily lunge half their body length onto shore, and are also capable of moving swiftly on land for short distances – up to 35 mph for very short bursts, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
After mating season, the female alligator will build her nest and lay up to 50 eggs. She will stay near the nest and defend it until the hatchlings appear after about 65 days. During mating season, smaller, less dominant male gators will often be pushed out of their watering holes and forced to find new quarters. This movement, along with typical hunting behavior, will sometimes bring the gators onto HOA property and into contact with residents. According to the FWC, “The best course of action is to always avoid alligators, and call the Nuisance Hotline.” (1-866-FWC-GATOR).
According to Pearson, who specializes in nuisance wildlife removal and relocation, human fatalities involving alligator attacks average out to one every other year in the state. Non-fatal attacks average in the teens annually. The FWC’s figures back this up; even though the state averages about seven unprovoked alligator attacks per year—a rate that has been increasing about 3 percent a year —the likelihood of a human being seriously injured in a random attack is roughly one in 2.4 million.
The rarity of attacks doesn’t mean the threat of an alligator incident isn’t real, or shouldn’t be taken seriously by boards and managers of condo and HOA communities located in gator territory. In addition to the human concerns for the bodily safety of adults, children, and pets, there are also liability considerations surrounding the presence —or even potential presence—of alligators on association property.
According to Greg Havemeier, senior vice president of Gulf Shore Insurance, which has offices in Naples, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Marco Island and Sarasota, “If your association knows of alligators on the premises, reasonable precautions should be taken in concert with advice from [your] legal counsel and insurers. Reasonable precautions might include, among other things, the posting of signs warning of the possible presence of alligators. Consideration might also be given to addressing other dangerous animals that might inhabit the property, such as poisonous snakes. In light of recent tragic events involving gators, preventative actions could not only prove to be vital in the control of the risk, but also a prudent measure in public opinion. There is no current mandate for signage, nor do liability policies currently contain a condition that would exclude coverage should a claim of this nature occur. However, insurance policies and terms are constantly evolving. Given recent events, it would not be surprising to see insurance carriers address this exposure in the future.”
So what to do if you discover an alligator (or a caiman, or crocodile) in your community’s swimming pool, basking on the golf course, or taking up residence in your decorative koi pond? Regardless of how large or small it might be, the first and most important step is to not attempt to engag—or even approach—the reptile on your own. Instead, either call your local animal control office or a professional wildlife removal company. The FWC’s Nuisance Alligator Hotline is an excellent place to start.
Mario Grasso, field operations manager for Oakstead, a sprawling mixed development covering 878 acres and comprised of nine separate gated communities in Pasco County just north of Tampa. Oakstead is laid out around many natural conservation preserves, including cypress marshes that are home to native trees, plants and animals and come under the protection of South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). Grasso patrols the community with a watchful eye for any signs of trouble. He also regularly inspects the community’s lakes and retention ponds, which are home to deadly snakes, and of course, alligators. Grasso makes an effort to educate the residents and staff about the dangers of going too near these bodies of water, and he has the FWC’s gator hotline on speed dial. “Florida fauna and flora and wetland knowledge is a must for a property like Oakstead,” he says.
Aside from the most important reason for not approaching or harassing an alligator, which is of course safety, there are also laws in place that deal specifically with how to handle nuisance wildlife, as well as specific licensing requirements for professionals who deal with specific kinds of animals. A state licensed trapper can be dispatched to capture and remove gators who wander too far into human territory. Most trappers use a snare or a noose attached to a long pole to capture the animal without having to get too close to its jaws. Once subdued, the animal’s snout is usually taped securely shut, and the alligator is wrangled into a metal box for transport off the property. According to animal control pros, whether the alligator is relocated or destroyed is often a matter of its size. An alligator of up to three or four feet may be successfully relocated to a remote area; larger gators will almost always be destroyed, as they’re simply too dangerous to risk letting them wander right back into trouble.
As for keeping gators safely in the swamps and bayous and away from people, Pearson says that outward-slanting walls or fencing does deter them, but smaller alligators can actually climb chain link fences if sufficiently motivated. There are no known repellants or non-physical barriers (such as floodlights or sonic devices) that will successfully impede an alligator that’s determined to venture onto a property – so avoidance and removal remain the safest, most effective means of neutralizing the threat they represent.
Florida is a beautiful state, rich in natural resources and unique plant and animal inhabitants—it just so happens that some of those inhabitants pose a real (if remote) risk to life and limb, and must be dealt with cautiously and respectfully. Know the risks, keep your wits about you, and there’s no reason humans and gators can’t coexist in peace.
Oba Gathing is a freelance writer and reporter for The Western Florida Cooperator.