Buffalo don’t roam, but we have alligators

gator 2 gatorI don’t recall where we were or the exact year, but I remember the commotion. People ran from the water and pointed toward what appeared to be a floating log. I couldn’t see too well. My parents made certain that I was kept well away from the water’s edge.

Then, it vanished beneath the surface. At the age of 4 or 5, it was my first encounter with one of the native creatures of my native region and first impression of the reaction, this creature often produces.

While we have some wonderful wildlife along the South Coast, many of North America’s most famous fauna are native to other regions. The buffalo do not roam here. The antelope play elsewhere. We don’t have moose or grizzlies.

We do, however, have alligators.

As the crowd showed on that coastal lake or inlet long ago, alligators interest people like few other creatures. Native residents still marvel at them. Visitors view them with a mix of fascination and fear.

A video of what appears to be a giant alligator walking across a Florida golf course went viral in the last few days.

When you stand on the bank of a creek or bayou and look down into a pair of cold, dark reptilian eyes, it’s a reminder that our species did not always dominate the planet. The predator looking back at you seems to be reflecting on a genetic memory of a time when mammals occupied a different niche in ecosystem – snacks.

Our fascination is not new.

In “Life on the Mississippi,” Mark Twain described a 19th-century Mississippi River steamboat pilot telling a tall tale of alligators so thick, they could wreck a vessel. “Alligator snags” were such a hazard, they had to be cleared with dredges commissioned for that purpose by the government.

In the same book, he wrote of stories sent back by European travelers of alligators often feasting on hapless river area residents, sometimes invading homes to dine on whole families.

The stories may be stretches, but one thing that has not changed in more than a century is the interest in alligators. When I worked for a newspaper, we noticed that any story involving alligators tended to be picked up frequently in other areas. During a couple of trips to Europe, I also noticed that one way to get people’s attention was to bring up alligators.

Europe may have history that stretches back millennia, but we have reptilian carnivores from the age of the dinosaur frolicking in our back yards.

One could try to explain that alligators don’t have quite the history of human destruction that legend has anointed them with.

Contrary to the tales told to travelers more than 150 years ago, alligators these days seldom break into houses and devour entire families. Perhaps the increase in home security systems has helped in that regard, but the fact is that the number of people killed by alligators in the United States since 1970 numbers about 26, less than one a year. We have a greater risk of being killed by lightning, bees, dogs or toddlers with guns than an alligator.

Alligators tend to avoid people for the most part. As with sharks, nature did not design them to consider us a food source, so they’ll usually go looking for something more suitable.

One note with that statement, however, is that many of the attacks that have taken place occurred during the mating season, a time when male alligators tend to get temperamental about things in their territory. Mating season is usually around May or June – about now, actually, so that might be worth keeping in mind.

A few other notes about alligators.

  • The distance between the eyes of an alligator in inches is about the same as the overall length of the particular reptile in feet.
  • Alligators are faster on land than some people realize. According to the Texas Wildlife and Parks Department, alligators can move at up to 35 miles an hour on land in a very short burst of speed. Over any kind of distance, a human should be able to outrun an alligator, but it is recommended that people stay at least 60 feet from an alligator in the wild. If an alligator hisses, you’re probably too close.
  • The American alligator is the official state reptile of Florida, Mississippi and Texas.
  • A male alligator can reach 15 feet in the wild and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Females are a bit smaller, about 8.5 feet.
  • The American alligator has been around about 150 million years, at least as a species. Individuals live about 50 years.

The fact is that alligators have been around on the Gulf Coast and other regions of the American South for much longer than we have. Almost hunted to extinction in the 20th century, they’ve made a bit of a comeback at the same time that humans have expanded into what has been their habitat for millions of years.

We are much more of a danger to the alligators than they are to us. Under most circumstances, the best thing that we can do for them is the same thing they usually try to do for us, leave each other alone.

Feeding an alligator is very dangerous — for the alligator. An alligator fed by people trying to lure it closer to a dock or bank will often not only lose its fear of people, but associate people with food. In a short time, someone from animal control will have to be sent out to deal with what has become a “nuisance alligator.”

This often results in the death of the alligator. “A fed alligator is a dead alligator,” as one animal control expert told me once.

The alligator is a symbol of the coastal South that we need to preserve. They are native creatures that fascinate residents and visitors alike. They have long been a source of tall tales, from viral internet postings to lurid 19th-century stories, but the reality is amazing enough.

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