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Gators Spring Into Action

Florida: The greatest contact between humans and alligators occurs from late March through June.

May 02, 1999|KAREN L. SHAW | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TAMPA, Fla. — Jimmy Jordan couldn't believe it. Walking his dog, Pete, along a lake in St. Petersburg, he whistled for the golden retriever and then watched in horror. "As soon as he looked back at me, the alligator grabbed him by his whole head and whipped him into the water and was gone," he said.

"This could easily have been a child. This thing could have taken anybody, anything just as quickly as it took an 85-pound dog. And that's insane."

Warm spring days are awakening cold-blooded gators from their winter sluggishness, animal experts warn. And as the reptiles search for food and mates, they're reappearing in developed areas that used to be their home turf.

"In residential areas where you have canals or ponds . . . you never know where an alligator might pop up," said Jim Huffstodt of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. "In front of your garage door, in your swimming pool. . . ."

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is found in rivers and swampy lowlands of the southeastern United States, ranging from North Carolina to Texas.

In Florida, which has the most gators, there have been 248 attacks on humans since 1948, Huffstodt said. Half of them involved children, and nine were fatal.

The 11-foot bull alligator that snatched Jordan's dog was in a city lake directly behind a hospital.

Gator-human interaction tends to increase during peak alligator activity from late March through June, Huffstodt said.

"That sun is their alarm clock, and when we get relatively consistently warm days, their blood warms up," he said. "They start to move out and they start to look around. They're looking for food . . . and they're looking for mates."

The reptiles are a protected species, but the state commission issues permits to trappers for complaints about gators that are extremely large or that have lost their fear of humans. Some 12,865 permits were issued statewide last year, mostly in the St. Petersburg and Fort Myers area.

The chance of a person dying from an alligator attack is much lower than death by drowning or lightning strike, according to the fish and game commission.

Less severe attacks come from alligator mothers protecting their young during mating season, said wildlife biologist Christopher Tucker.

As water temperatures increase, alligators have less reason to leave the water to warm up, and that decreases the chances of human interaction, Tucker said.

Gators four feet and larger eat just about anything: large turtles, fish, birds, muskrats, nutria, otters, raccoons, carrion, an occasional deer, even other alligators.

And, as Jordan knows, they can take down a dog. He was furious to learn the gator that snatched Pete was a well-known local presence, nicknamed Old Grandpa.

"Anything over 4 feet has to come out and be relocated" from public parks, Jordan said. "It's just too much to have an alligator that size and that mean, that wily, to be anywhere where . . . it had access to residential homes."

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