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Human-Alligator Encounters Rising In Southeast U.S.

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
September 12, 2005
 
One Friday evening last July, Kevin Albert Murray of North Port,
Florida, wanted to cool off after a long day of lawn maintenance. So he
went for a swim in a canal, the Apollo Waterway.

It was there that a 12-foot-2-inch long (3.7-meter) alligator grabbed the 41-year-old by the arm and pulled him under.

Murray surfaced once, went under again, and died. The tragedy marked the 17th recorded fatal alligator attack in Florida since 1948.

It also spotlighted a lesser-known fact: That alligators kill more people in the United States than sharks do.

Thriving Alligators

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) ranges broadly in the southeastern United States, covering all or parts of 10 states from Texas to North Carolina.

The animal was widely hunted in the first half of the 20th century. But in 1967 the federal government listed the reptile as an endangered species.

It has thrived ever since, even after being removed from the endangered list in 1987. And because more people live in Southeast coastal areas, human-alligator interactions are ever more frequent.

In an article just published in the fall issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, Ricky L. Langley of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports that most of these interactions don't involve any injury.

In Florida, there are 17,000 reports every year about nuisance alligators, and the state removes about 6,000 animals a year. Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama remove hundreds of alligators, while other states relocate smaller numbers each year.

Fatal Attacks

But since 1948, there have been 18 fatal attacks—one in Georgia, the rest in Florida—and more than 350 injuries ranging from minor scratches to amputated limbs.

According to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, there are more shark attacks in United States waters, but more alligator attacks are fatal.

Most of the injuries are lacerations to the hands, arms, legs, and feet. Most attacks occur in the afternoon.

In Florida, more than 17 percent of the injuries occurred when people deliberately touched an alligator, either to capture it, pick it up, or exhibit it.

About an equal percentage of injuries occurred while the victims were swimming. People fishing, retrieving sunken golf balls, wading, and snorkeling accounted for 29 percent of the injuries.

Other injuries occurred when victims were standing or working near the water bank, riding in a boat, or water skiing when the alligator appeared.

Some people were not even near the water when attacked. "From looking at the data," Langley said, "I would say 30-35 percent of attacks are not directly water-related. Most of these are from individuals trying to capture an alligator."

Big Trouble

Not unexpectedly, bigger alligators are the most dangerous. Smaller ones tend to bite only once. But animals longer than eight feet (2.4 meters) will often bite repeatedly, which is their typical chase and feeding behavior. And female alligators will vigorously defend their nests.

Alligators who have been fed by humans quickly become conditioned to their presence and can be extremely dangerous to anyone lulled by the reptiles' apparently tame behavior.

Langley points out that even surviving the trauma of an attack may not be the end of the victim's problems. Numerous bacterial and fungal species have been cultured from the mouths of alligators.

Some of these germs can cause serious illness. The bacteria Aeromonas, for example, can start a skin rash and progress to create a serious skin infection. Antibiotic therapy and tetanus shots are essential after an alligator bite.

More Alligators, More People

As the alligator population has grown, so too has the number of people living in Southeast coastal areas. This makes it likely that the number of alligator attacks will increase as well.

So what should you do if you encounter an alligator? "Back away," Langley said. He notes that certain precautions can prevent trouble:

• Don't let children approach water that may be inhabited by alligators.

• Avoid swimming outside posted swimming areas, and avoid swimming at dusk or at night when alligators are actively looking for food.

• Don't feed alligators or throw food near the banks of waterways in alligator country.

• Don't remove alligators from their natural habitat.

Alligators, Langley adds, do not make good pets.

He also notes that many attacks occur on golf courses. Langley advises golfers to forget about a ball driven into or very near a water trap. "It is better to take a penalty stroke," he said, "than risk being injured."

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