Thanks to the Internet, legends of huge man-eaters continue to surface. The stories are a crock.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 2002
We live in a state where dinosaurs will eat us if we go for a dip at the wrong place at the wrong time. Just ask unlucky swimmer Frank Dotson, who survived an attack by an alligator on Aug. 26 in the Withlacoochee River.
But for some folks, the reality of Florida isn't exciting enough. They want swamp apes (the bigfoot of the Everglades) or the Bardin Booger (the bigfoot of North Florida). They want monster rattlesnakes and man-eating crocodiles.
The Internet has made it easier to spread fairy tales.
I read this one recently:
A foursome was playing golf at Palm Beach's ritziest country club. One guy lost his ball in a water hazard and started fishing around for it. The other three golfers waited awhile, but finally went ahead with their round. Eventually they started looking for him. Next to the pond they found only his clubs.
The next day somebody spotted the giant American crocodile known as "Old Mose" (you have to love the name) sunbathing near the eighth tee. He looked plump and well-fed. A state trapper caught him and slit open its stomach.
Guess what spilled out?
A gory photograph accompanied the story. You had to wonder how the beast swallowed those pants.
The picture was on the level, but the story turned out to be the croc.
The American crocodile, which grows to about 16 feet, and which I wrote about in these pages not a week ago, inhabits coastal South Florida. Our crocs are mostly nocturnal and shy. Yes, on rare occasions, they do show up on golf courses. Yes, they own a fearsome set of choppers. But never, not even once, has one been blamed for an unprovoked attack on a human in Florida.
What about that terrifying photo? Adam Britton of the Florida Museum of Natural History told the Web site Urban Legends (www.snopes.com) that the photo was taken in Indonesia, where another species, the saltwater crocodile, is more than happy to sup on the occasional human.
The hoax was so widely circulated that Palm Beach golf resorts received phone calls from nervous tourists. Nor did the rumors constitute good news for the American crocodile, an endangered species that one day might need the goodwill of the people to survive in modern Florida.
"There is obviously a cadre of bubbaheads out there with too much time on their hands," says Paul Moler, crocodile and snake expert for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
For years, I owned an old photo of what appeared to be a 10-foot rattlesnake held by a very brave guy somewhere in the South. "You can tell the old gent is holding the snake on a sapling held out in front of him," Moler says. "It's an old bass fisherman's trick, whereby you can make the fish twice as big just by holding it out in front of you."
For the record, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes might reach 8 feet. But if you've seen a 6-footer, you've seen a whopper.
If you've seen a 12-foot alligator, you've seen a big one. If you've seen a 14-footer, you've seen a monster. If you've seen a 16-footer, time to call it a night.
When a friend of mine sent me an Internet photo of an 18 1/2-foot alligator, caught by a trapper near Fort Myers, I got excited.
Like a lot of Floridians, I'm a connoisseur of alligator fact and legend. One of the earliest likenesses of an alligator, painted by French artist Jacques Le Monyne in 1591, showed an enraged 30-footer being attacked by native Floridians. Later, the botanist William Bartram toured the southeast cataloging flora and fauna.
"The alligator when full grown is a very large and terrible creature, and of prodigious strength, activity and swiftness in the water," he wrote in 1791. "I have seen them 20 feet in length, and some are supposed to be 22 or 23 feet."
In 1896, a scientist in Louisiana reported killing a 19-foot alligator.
In 1956, a Florida herpetologist claimed he measured a 17-foot, 5-inch gator.
Allan Woodward, a state biologist, spent 18 years studying alligators. He was especially interested in learning how large they could grow. He developed an accurate formula for alligator size based on the length of its skull.
At Harvard, he measured a famous skull provided by alligator hunter C.B. Cory in the 19th century. Cory said the gator, killed near Vero Beach, measured 16 feet. But when Woodward applied his formula he came up with 14 feet, 11 inches.
"I don't think they get much bigger than that."
So what about the 181/2-footer my friend showed me?
"A hoax," Woodward says.
It was 13 1/2 feet long, a healthy alligator, taken by trapper in Hillsborough County, but not even close to a record. You could fool me by that photo at the top of this story on Page 1D. You could fool lots of folks. That's the point of these Internet hoaxes.
I hung up before I remembered to ask Woodward about those giant alligators lurking in the sewers of New York City. Certainly, they must be real.