ECOVIEWS: Why do we kill big alligators?

  • Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2014 12:01 a.m.

Judging from how many queries I get about alligators, they are of interest to lots of people.

Q. I recently read about a 10-foot-long alligator that was shot in front of tourists on a beach in South Carolina. One of the quotes I saw from the “nuisance animal removal” group that killed it was that “it would have been too dangerous to try to remove the alligator and shoot it elsewhere.” My question is why did they need to remove it in the first place? Why not leave it alone? I have never heard of alligators eating people on beaches!

A. I had not heard about this particular event but I'm aware of similar situations in which an alligator was traveling overland and encountered a bunch of humans – in which it has no interest other than getting away from them as quickly as possible. Several factors may have led to what sounds like the unnecessary killing of an alligator.

First, some people have an irrational fear of alligators (and a lot of other wildlife) due to ignorance about animal behavior. That fear can turn to panic if the person actually comes face-to-face with a wild animal. Most people in the United States no longer live in areas where they are likely to encounter wildlife.

Such knowledge as they have has come from overhyped TV shows that inaccurately portray the big reptiles and many other kinds of wild animals as dangerous, aggressive creatures from which we must be protected.

Second, public officials become involved in incidents such as the gator on the beach because they do not want to be held responsible should anyone be injured (which usually happens because of unsafe, unnecessary, and often just plain stupid behavior).

Consequently, the official in charge hires someone to handle the problem. This typically means paying a private contractor to do the job, which in this case means someone who can deal with an alligator.

Dealing with the gator could mean coaxing it to trundle off to a nearby wetland. An alligator on a beach is neither an abnormal situation nor a newsworthy one. I have seen gators go into the ocean surf and even swim in the sea.

The visit is usually a short-lived one, and they soon return to freshwater systems where they spend most of their time. Unfortunately, thanks to news media sensationalism, some people have the idea that an alligator coming back from a swim must be dealt with on the spot. In such cases, “dealing with” the gator generally means killing it.

In truth, an alligator that encounters a crowd of people would normally want nothing more than to get away from them. If left to its own devices and given a clear escape route, it would soon be gone.

Of course, that's not what you want if you are in the “nuisance animal removal” profession or are a TV news crew filming the event. A calm, low-key approach that doesn't draw a crowd is not likely to be the norm.

Ordinarily, a gator moving overland is a natural event. Unfortunately, in rare instances alligators can be of legitimate concern because people have fed them – which, incidentally, is illegal.

Alligators are closely related to birds, so they quickly learn where a free meal can be acquired. Then, when they see a person, they expect food. Once gators lose their fear of humans, someone will eventually declare them a nuisance.

South Carolina and other states will issue a permit for killing an alligator above a certain size if it has been classified as a nuisance. It is against the law to remove the animal and relocate it somewhere else, even miles away. It can only be killed.

Don't turn your lake into a feeding station for alligators. In most states, if you feed an alligator you are sentencing it to death. Live and let live is the best motto for dealing with alligators, and indeed most wildlife.

Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.

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