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The Alligator Is Not a Man-Eater -- Unless, of Course, It's Feeling Hungry

By Ken Ringle
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Nature, it should be pointed out, always bats last. This is true even in Florida, where, as novelist Carl Hiaasen makes clear, life is more than a little surreal, and where three people were recently attacked and killed by alligators in less than a week. Previously, 17 people had died from alligator attacks in Florida since 1948. There is no record in the United States of three fatal alligator attacks in one year, much less in one week in one state.

So something clearly is going on in Florida. Yesterday, as if to emphasize Hiaasen's point, an alligator walked through the doggy door of a woman's house in Bradenton and went for her golden retriever. The woman grabbed a shotgun and blazed away. The alligator escaped with a flesh wound. The neighbors heard shots and called police, who promptly cited the woman for hunting without a license.

To those whose closest acquaintance with alligators is a wallet or belt, this must sound like the Revenge of the Handbags or Wingtips Fight Back. But the truth is what's going on has more to do with an unusual intersection of drought and gator-mating season, compounded by decades of developers' repopulating the alligators' Everglades habitat with condominiums and retirees in leisure suits. Alligators don't have the brains to organize a revolution, nor have they ever needed to. They've survived very nicely for thousands of years with the same basic equipment they had in the age of the dinosaurs.

We Louisianans understand this. We treat alligators with respect, and the occasional addition of sauce piquant. Alligator turns up frequently not only at backyard barbecues but on the menus of all the best restaurants in Louisiana.

In Louisiana, we fish with alligators, swim with them, even keep them as pets. We used to have a 14-footer named Ferdinand in the large pond below our house. My father and I came upon him sunning on the bank one day when we were fishing. Ferdinand was startled and dived straight under our boat, the horny notches on his back clacking as he scraped beneath the keel. This was an interesting sensation, since he was very, very wide and two feet longer than the boat. But he never hurt anybody.

Ferdinand was one of our prize attractions on Avery Island. He even made an appearance at my sister's wedding reception. Unfortunately, he's no longer around. We think he was offed by my cousin Ned, just for eating Ned's Chesapeake Bay retriever. It's true Ned had bite-size children around his house across the pond at the time, but we still think of Ferdinand as a major loss.

George isn't around any longer, either, which is also a shame. He was 12 feet long, had one eye and was particularly fond of poor-boy sandwiches, which island workers used to toss him during lunch hour. My middle daughter came face-to-snout with him once while hiking alone when she was 10. Fortunately, she was carrying a poor-boy sandwich, which she sacrificed to George in making her getaway. But George never hurt anybody, either.

I can't remember exactly when George disappeared. It may have been after the Incident in the Gardens. That was when a group of schoolgirls from New Orleans was visiting the local egret pond at the same time a tourist pulled up and decided to let his yellow Labrador retriever out of the car for a little exercise. The dog, joyous and enthusiastic fellow that he was, made a run for the water before anyone could explain to him that there were alligators therein.

You would think from the gator-mania on CNN and Fox this week that alligators are some sort of grotesque mutation of the natural world stalking urban man. The obvious truth is that alligators in Florida are just hungry and confused and doing what comes naturally.

It helps to understand this and treat alligators with respect and common sense. We understand, for example, that unlike crocodiles -- which are fiercely aggressive but in the United States inhabit only Florida's southern tip -- alligators are basically shy around man. They are opportunistic predators, however, and though they usually find plenty of fish, birds and small mammals to eat in the marsh, they will attack almost anything when really hungry, including deer and cattle. After capturing and killing a large animal, gators normally prefer to drag it into a muddy den to rot before they eat it.

Officials in Florida this week cutting open gators to search for victims discovered volleyballs, Frisbees, license plates and even car parts.

It's good to remember, too, that alligators are particularly fond of dogs. Walking your beloved chihuahua beside a Florida canal is like offering them a taco on a leash.

My family's history with alligators goes way back. My grandfather and his cousins hatched one from an egg in 1879, when they were all children. His name was Anceps -- the alligator, not my grandfather -- and he was much-beloved as a pet until he was unwisely put out to sun in a tin dish one summer day and found later parboiled.

One of those young cousins, E.A. "Ned" McIlhenny, grew up to write "The Alligator's Life History," an immensely readable biological treatise so definitive the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles had it reprinted in 1976, more than 40 years after its original publication.

As a boy, he writes in the book's preface, he and his cousins used to swim in the bayou that surrounds Avery Island, and "always took great pleasure and not a little excitement in seeing how many gators we could call around us during our swim. We would attract them by imitating the barks and cries of dogs and by making loud popping noises with our lips. . . . We had no fear of them and would swim around the big fellows, dive under them and sometimes treat them with great disrespect. . . . Sometimes when the tide was low we would surround on three sides a big one that might be lying on a mud flat. . . . He would stand a certain amount of pelting with mud. . . . Then it was, 'Boys, get out of his way, he's going to the water.' On one of these occasions, I was mired past my knees in the soft mud . . . and the old gator who was blinded with mud ran over me as I fell backward, and I still have the marks of his claws on my stomach where . . . he slid over my naked body."

Uncle Ned gave me my first alligator as a pet when I was about 7. Croxy was an ill-tempered little beast, and returned all my love with repeated attempts at digital amputation. We eventually had to give him to a zoo.

He did not, however, diminish my affection for alligators -- an affection widely shared in Louisiana. Women in my extended family wear little gold and silver alligators as jewelry, a few have necklaces of mounted alligator teeth and one has written a little book of alligator verse. Alligator skulls abound as household decor.

Alligators have a surprisingly wide range, particularly during mating season, and fairly frequently one will wander into the the little lake where we swim on Avery Island, much to the alarm of Northern visitors. Almost all of them are small, however, and do no harm. I even caught one on a fly rod during the 1980s. He was about 2 1/2 feet long, and it took me 20 minutes to land him. The hardest part was getting him out of the hand net so we could turn him loose. He is now doubtless someone's handbag, wallet or belt.

In Uncle Ned's day, alligators lived as long as 50 years and grew as large as 18 feet and 500 pounds in the wild, but these days it's unusual to encounter one more than eight feet long and a fraction of that age. Hunting pressure in recent years has diminished the size but not the numbers. Sophisticated management of the gator population nowadays encourages hunters to rob alligator nests and transport the eggs to a hatchery, where they are exchanged for year-old hatchlings then turned loose in the wild. Alligators grow about a foot a year for at least the first six years, and most are shot for hides and meat sometime afterward. The egg exchange vastly reduces the mortality of baby gators from fish, birds and other natural predators and keeps the population healthy.

Once an alligator gets two or three feet long, its only enemy is man. Just last month, I boated into the marsh to inspect a natural alligator nursery aswarm with newly released youngsters still squeaking and wearing their yellow baby stripes. They eyed me hungrily. I did the same to them.

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