ALLIGATORS should never be fed. Alligators are not cute. Alligators should never be fed. Alligators are not entertainment for small children. Alligators should never be fed.
Those lines are not on a sign at the zoo -- they're from a recent editorial in the Island Packet, the local paper at Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Throughout the year tourists from around the country flock to the posh resort to enjoy its beaches, golf courses, scenery, and the "good living" of this lovely and still unspoiled development. This year, there's an added attraction: a resurgence of alligators.
It's a mixed blessing that is delighting some of the inhabitants, annoying others, and providing a topic for heated discussion.
The American alligator may be an endangered or threatened species in most of the southeastern United States, but in the lagoons scattered throughout Hilton Head, as I discovererd on a recent vacation, they seem to be everywhere -- on the golf courses, in residential areas, in people's back yards, even in shopping centers and alongside restaurants.
To the tourists, the alligators provide an exotic and unusual sight, and a rare "photo opportunity." But to many of the residents of this resort community, these living fossils have become a sometimes bothersome -- and federally protected -- part of their everyday lives to which they have had to learn to adapt. However, recent incidents of gators eating pet dogs, scattering outdoor diners, and devouring tame ducks have now raised the stakes and created a public relations problem for these reptiles.
Many of the resident gators can be found in fresh-water lagoons traversing the local golf courses. One of the island's largest gators, reportedly a 12-footer, is often seen in and on the banks of the lagoon on the 18th hole of the Plantation Club's ocean courses. Four days of stalking the Planation Monster turned up just two "baby" gators, one of which came out of the water and went toward 11-year-old Scott Selig, a visitor from the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Ignoring my instructions to hold still so I could get a decent photograph, Selig wisely retreated to a safe distance, from which he observed the curious gator approach and inspect his photos and two cameras lying on the turf, before slipping slowly back into the water. The gator was apparently unimpressed by the instamatic photos Selig had just taken of it and which were lying beside the cameras. The club's golfers, playing through as usual, hardly took notice of the scene. Indeed, it is a rare duffer that does not encounter a gator on the links.
Stories of the gators and their antics abound. And although some of the tales are perhaps apocryphal, they have become an integral part of the lore and mystique of Hilton Head.
Bob Burk, assistant pro at the Palmetto Dunes Golf Course, tells of the time a few weeks ago when a larger and quite rude gator crawled up on the fairway and began "taunting the golfers, then got up on the green and wouldn't let anyone come up." On another occasion, Bob remembers, a woman's Doberman pinscher barked at a gator, chased it into the water, and went in after it. When the dog reached the deep water, "the gator nailed it. Only thing left was the lady on the bank crying for her dog." And just the other day, he says, a 60-pound bulldog was snatched by a six-foot gator.
Signs on golf courses, in motel rooms and rental houses warn people not to feed the gators. They explain that these reptiles are wild, predatory animals that should be treated with caution and respect. Although an adult gator can outrun a man over a short distance, they generally do not bother humans, and unprovoked attacks are extremely rare. However, feeding the reptiles can cause them to lose their timidity and fear of humans, and to become dangerous and aggressive.
Some alligators have definitely begun to make nuisances of themselves, but the local people are amazingly tolerant. After finding the remains of a freshly killed dog floating in the lagoon, I notified the local animal shelter in case the dog's owner was looking for it. The woman at the shelter thanked me and said, "Don't blame the gator." I didn't; they have to eat, too. tAt the Fisherman's Lagoon restaurant in the Hilton Head Shopping Center, one of the most luxurious on the island, guests can dine on some of the finest seafood around while watching dozens of ducks and geese float in the lagoon outside the windows. Occasionally, diners can see one of the flowl dissapear suddenly beneath the surface to become a gourmet meal for the resident gator. Duck feathers on the water attest to recent losses, which have reportedly included a newly arrived river otter as well.
The latest word was that the restaurant's management was hoping to have the gator trapped and transported away. Three years ago, owner Tom Gardner was fined $200 under the Endangered Species Act for killing an alligator that had been eating the ducks in the lagoon. This time he was waiting for state wildlife officials to trap the critter and take it away -- and the sooner the better.
The Island Packet reported on the current gator situation in a story tantalzingly entitled "one gator in custody: second remain at large." Describing how "one reptilian public nuisance was behind bars while another continued to terrorize the occupants of a popular restaurant-side lagoon," the article told how an especially audacious gator scattered a couple enjoying the scenery at a shopping center and sent them fleeing for their lives:
"Ed Bullard, owner of the Wicker 'N Whatnot, and his wife, Anita, were sitting on a bench a few feet from the lagoon when the creature came out of the lagoon and approached them with its jaws open wide. Later, the same alligator chased away two teen-agers, Bullard said. 'One of them was so frightened she left her purse behind.'"
After a gator has consumed its unofficial quota of two dogs or otherwise becomes overly troublesome, it is captured and removed to a lessinhabited area. Marshmallows are often used for "bait," since the gators are especially fond of them. The Sea Pines Corp. maintains a special trailer in which to keep captured gators until wildlife officials can pick them up and move them to wildlife refuges, remote islands or swamps. Sometimes, however, the reptiles find their way back home if they are not taken far enough away.
The man to contact for gator removal is Sea Pines wildlife officer Dan Garvin, who is often called on to help these pesky critters find new homes in the wilderness where there's less prejudice against their life styles. The day I spoke with him, he had just captured the 10-foot gator that had been bothering people at a popular shopping center, "coming up to the outdoor tables after their food, pocketbooks, and whatever else it could get."
Garvin also told me that the dead dog I had seen belonged to a man who went horseback riding every day with his Labrador retriever following along behind. The dog would regularly stop at a lagoon to get a drink of water, and the resident gator apparently learned to wait for it. "When the dog went down to get a drink," Garvin said, "the gator grabbed it and bit it in half."
Many people, especially the tourists, enjoy observing the alligators. If you see a group of people clustered around a lagoon, chances are there's a gator in the water or on shore. But some people go too far in their appreciation of this endangered predator. Local entertainer Gregg Russell tells of the time his wife, a real estate agent, was showing a house to a woman with a 3-year-old child. When the woman saw an alligator in the back yard, "she wanted to put her daughter on it and take a photograph of the scene, lit it was a Disney alligator."
Because their hides make an excellent leather for manufacturing shoes, belts, wallets, purses, and other luxury items, the alligator was almost slaughtered into extinction. But by the late 1960s, when its demise seemed imminent, the alligator was given legal protection, and in some areas it has made a remarkable comeback. Yet proaching and the ongoing destruction of its wilderness habitat continue to represent a threat to its survival in most of its remaining range.
In South Carolina, as in most of the southeastern United States, the remnant gator population is listed by the federal government as an endangered or threatened species. The penalty for killing, capturing, harassing, or otherwise harming a gator without a special permit can be a $20,000 fine and/or a year in jail.
Ecologists point out that, despite their fearsome and grotesque appearance, alligators are among nature's most valuable creatures. They feed on water moccasins and other poisonous snakes, thus keeping in check the populations of these potentially harmful creatures. And when ponds and lakes dry up in times of drought, which occur periodically in the Southeast, alligators dig water holes, thus helping the other animals to survive. This provides habitat for fish and turtles, and places to feed and drink for birds and mammals.
Gators do not live in saltwater, so bathers on Hilton Head's lovely beaches need not worry about the reptiles nibbling at their toes.
Dan Garvin estimates that there may be 200-300 gators on Hilton Head and says he personally has seen 35 to 50 young gators in 1981 alone. He attributes their comeback to tough enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, including prosecution of several individuals for killing gators and/or possessing their hides. But the increased visibility of gators in many areas of the Southeast is not necessarily a sign that they are out of danger and may, in fact, mean just the opposite. As humans develop and encroach on the last wilderness habitats of these creatures, the alligators are running out of places to live and hide.
Despite the offenses of a small group of reptilian troublemakers, most of Hilton Head's residents seem to appreciate the gators and like having them around -- as long as they "stay in their place," which does not include shopping centers. With more and more swamp land being converted into housing developments and shopping centers, some day one of the last refuges for this ancient and beleaguered creature may be ironically be the well-manicured golf courses of Hilton Head Island.