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Living With Alligators

Alligators and humans have shared the marshes, swamps, and lakes of the southeastern United States for many centuries. Native Indians and early European pioneers occasionally utilized this reptile for food, but not until fashion markets began producing alligator skin products did this prehistoric reptile become heavily hunted. A century of unrestricted and unregulated hunting depleted most accessible populations. Even after the passage of state regulations governing the harvest of alligators during the 1940s, alligator populations continued to decline due to extensive poaching. It was not until 1970, when federal laws prohibited the interstate shipment of alligators, that these reptiles were afforded effective protection. The federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 provided further support.

Shortly after their protection began, alligators rapidly repopulated areas once heavily hunted. Surveys established by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission indicated progressive increases from 1974 to 1985. During that same period, Florida experienced tremendous human population growth. That trend continues today, with over 1,000 people moving to Florida daily. Many of these new residents seek homes on water front property, resulting in increased interactions between humans and alligators. Although most Floridians have learned to coexist with alligators, the potential for conflict always exists. Because of their predatory nature and large size, alligators can, and occasionally do, attack pets. Regretfully, humans, too, occasionally are attack victims and in rare instances are killed by large alligators. Between 1948 and January 1997, 225 alligator attacks on humans were documented with seven of those resulting in fatalities. Although this number of attacks may seem high, they constitute a very small percentage of water-related incidents compared to those involving water skiing, scuba diving, and boating mishaps.

Safety tips

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission receives over 10,000 alligator-related complaints annually. The vast majority of these complaints deal with alligators occurring in places such as garages, back yards, pools, golf-course water hazards, and ditches. In many cases, if left unmolested, alligators eventually will retreat to more preferred habitats away from people. However, if you encounter an animal that poses a threat to human safety:

DON'T- swim outside of posted swimming areas or in waters that might contain large alligators.
DO - swim with a partner within all marked swimming areas. These areas are specifically situated and designed to reduce potential alligator/human conflicts.
DON'T - swim at night or dusk when alligators most actively feed.
DO- use ordinary common care. Swim during daylight hours. Avoid areas with thick vegetation along shorelines; these areas provide good natural habitat for larger alligators.
DON'T - feed or entice alligators. Alligators overcome their natural shyness and become accustomed or attracted to humans when fed,

DO- inform others that feeding alligators is a violation of state law and that by feeding alligators, people create problems for others who want to use the water for recreational purposes.
DON'T - throw fish scraps into the water or leave trash on shore. Although you are not intentionally feeding alligators, the end result can be the same.
DO - dispose of fish scraps in garbage cans situated at most boat ramps or fish camps.
DON'T - allow pets to swim in water known to contain large alligators or in designated swimming areas with humans. Dogs suffer many more attacks than humans, probably because dogs more closely resemble natural prey items of large alligators.
DO- swim your pets in areas not inhabited by large alligators. Keep your pet away from areas of heavy vegetation, and maintain your dog within command distance.

The Alligator's Legacy

Based on fossil records, scientists have determined that crocodilians have existed for about 150 million years, surviving beyond dinosaurs and flying reptiles. Today, however, habitat destruction and indiscriminate hunting endanger many crocodilian species. In the United States, most alligator populations have rebounded from hunting and poaching pressure due to effective laws regulating the taking and transportation of alligators and alligator products. In Florida, rapidly increasing populations of both people and alligators have led to a progressive rise in the number of alligator-related complaints. Although the majority of the problems with alligators relate to their being in places where they aren't wanted, a small number are tragically linked to alligator attacks. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission removes over 4,000 alligators per year through licensed trappers to reduce opportunities for such tragic occurrences. Through the removal of these alligators and increased awareness on the part of the public, the number of alligator attacks that occur annually has remained constant in spite of the increases in alligator and human populations in Florida.

Residents and visitors alike must realize that alligators are an important part of Florida's heritage, and that these prehistoric reptiles play an important role in the ecology of Florida's wetlands. An understanding of these facts and broader knowledge of alligator habits will ensure that humans and alligators continue their long-term coexistence.