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Learning to live with alligators

Be alert around water, and remember: Never feed wild animals.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001


Be alert around water, and remember: Never feed wild animals.

We live at an amazing time. Push a button, the blender whirrs, and we can enjoy an icy margarita at the height of Florida summer. We can drive to the Cape and watch a rocket blast off for Mars and be home in time to watch baseball in an air-conditioned stadium. We rule our world as no generation before.

That is, unless we dive into a Florida lake or river -- the domain of an animal whose stay on Earth has been longer than our own. In the black water, we are just another member of the animal kingdom.

This seems obvious, but sometimes we forget. The moment we wade into the water, we have entered a wilderness. Yes, we're Homo sapiens. We can write literature and sculpt and paint. We can cure disease and build skyscrapers. We love our spouses and our children.

In the water, humanity means little. The alligator, an animal whose brain is the size of a lima bean, doesn't care if we've read Thoreau. It'll eat us and the book too.

It hardly means we should live in terror. Thousands of Floridians every day swim in springs, lakes and rivers without harm. Fortunately, we are a rare item on the alligator's menu. Otherwise there would be far more than the 15 attacks on humans that take place annually. Since 1948, alligators have killed only 11 of us, including a Winter Haven toddler last week.

The drive to the lake is more dangerous than the swim. We accept that. What we don't accept is the possibility of being eaten by an animal that was here when the T-Rex roamed the earth.

At the wrong place, at the wrong time, we can be taken.

In 1987, an FSU student named George Cummings III visited Wakulla Springs State Park south of Tallahassee for a day of snorkeling. The spring is North America's largest and deepest. The water is cold and clear. Cummings, 29, must have felt claustrophobic in the restricted swimming area.

He dived under the rope and floated down the wide river. He no doubt saw bass and bream and the occasional soft-shell turtle among the grasses waving in the current. He must have felt like he was in his own little world.

He apparently never spotted the 11-foot alligator.

A while later, as a glass-bottom boat cruised down the river, a tourist pointed out the alligator and the dead deer in its jaws. The deer turned out to be George Cummings.

In 1993, a Boy Scout troop canoed down the Loxahatchee River near West Palm Beach, one of the most beautiful rivers in Florida. Upriver, where passages are winding and narrow, the paddler negotiates fallen cabbage palms and cypress stumps. The river widens where it enters Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Shade is scarce, and on a sunny day the temptation to jump in is almost irresistible.

On a shallow stretch, the boys decided to cool off. One was Bradley Weidenhamer, 10. Suddenly, in that crowd of happy boys, he was pulled under. The alligator was an 11-foot-4 male.

After such tragic attacks, some people demand the extermination of alligators. It's an understandable emotion, however unwise.

The alligator, like the wolf and bobcat, plays an important role in maintaining healthy populations of other wildlife. In Florida, alligators dig holes to find water during droughts. Other animals benefit. Alligators are magnificent creatures and no less valuable than fireflies or manatees.

Could alligators be eliminated? Probably not. A worldwide demand for crocodilian products and illegal poaching put the alligator on the endangered species list in the 1960s. When I was growing up on the edge of the Everglades, I hardly saw them.

But with minimum protection, their population exploded, suggesting that alligators -- with 150-million years of tolerating everything from ice ages to the collision of comets with the Earth behind them -- merely were lying low. Today, wildlife experts estimate their population at about a million.

The task is learning to live with alligators. Common sense and respect are the best tools.

Continue swimming, but don't swim where you see large alligators. Don't swim between dusk and dawn -- alligators are more active after dark. Don't approach a weedy shoreline, where alligators sometimes lurk. Avoid murky water. Don't tease alligators or approach an alligator's nest. Always be alert. When lying motionless on a riverbank, an alligator is surprisingly difficult to notice. Alligators routinely ambush small animals coming for drinks, so don't swim with a pet or walk your dog by the water's edge. If you've got small children or pets and live on the water, fence your yard.

Respect the alligator as a potentially dangerous wild animal.

That includes doing nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to influence an alligator's natural behavior.

A truly wild alligator tends to be wary of human beings. Given a choice, even a big alligator generally will get out of the way.

The possibility of tragedy increases when people start feeding alligators.

Once fed, an alligator quickly loses its natural fear. Over in Polk County, residents enjoyed tossing the occasional dinner-table morsel to the alligators of Cannon Lake. It was fun, a novelty, perhaps a little daring.

Alexandria Murphy, by all accounts an adventuresome 2-year-old, slipped out of her house when her mother wasn't watching. At 4:19 p.m. on June 23 her mother reported the child missing. Less than hour later, a deputy found the child's body.

She'd drowned. But both arms and a leg were punctured by bites, and bones were broken. Alligators typically drown their victims before eating them. A trapper caught the alligator easily -- it was accustomed to people. In its jaws was human hair.

On Wednesday, Dagmar Dow, 43, was swimming at the Lake Como nudist resort in Pasco County when she was dragged under by a 9-foot-8 alligator. Dow is recovering, but she may still lose her left foot, which was almost severed. Her husband, Ray Dow, blamed the attack on people who had been feeding the alligator.

Feeding alligators is a misdemeanor under state law, punishable by 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Perhaps the penalties should be stiffer.

Dow was lucky to survive. She was big enough to fight back and her husband came to her rescue. Children usually don't know what hit them.

Perhaps the most gruesome attack on a child ever happened in 1988. Four-year-old Erin Glover was walking with her brother and her puppy when a 101/2-foot gator pulled her into a neighborhood retention pound in Charlotte County. Neighbors for months had bought groceries, mostly marshmallows, to feed the alligator. Nobody was prosecuted.

Early Floridians seldom felt the need to feed wildlife. That's probably because they had a daily relationship with soil, livestock and game animals. Feeding animals that can fend for themselves would have been considered asinine if not disrespectful.

Most of us live in cities now. We may own a few goldfish and a cat and a couple of houseplants, but we don't have gardens. Few of us fish, almost nobody hunts. We get our animal fix from television or the zoo.

Some still try to commune, but in an unhealthy way.

We throw a few chicken wings to an alligator. What's the harm?

In a Tampa hospital, Dagmar Dow takes pain medication even as she counts her blessings.

Alexandria Murphy was buried on Wednesday in Winter Haven.

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