Alligators and humans | News | The Press and Standard

by | July 7, 2016 5:00 am

Last Updated: July 6, 2016 at 10:42 am

A little common sense goes a long way in avoiding problems with alligators.

By KATRENA McCALL
editor@lowcountry.com

Photos by JEFF KRAMER
Common sense is the key to avoiding problems with alligators, said S.C. Dept. of Natural Resources Biologist Dean Harrigal of Green Pond.
In the last 40 years, there have only been 16 instances where humans were injured by alligators, and all involved people doing something to put themselves in danger, he said. There has never been a fatal attack in South Carolina.
“An alligator’s behavior in the wild is one of avoidance,” Harrigal said. “People who get bitten by alligators are doing something they shouldn’t be doing: feeding the gator, having a moonlight swim, splashing in the water at dawn or dusk.” One incident Harrigal remembers involved a man trying to retrieve his golf ball, which landed next to an alligator. When he went into the rough and picked up the ball, the surprised gator turned and bit his arm.
The most common bad interactions between humans and gators result when people feed gators, either intentionally or by doing things like cleaning fish on a dock and throwing the remains in the water. When the gators start to associate people with food, they begin to lose their natural fear of humans. Then the gator starts hanging around waiting for a snack, being visible instead of retreating, and that creates a potential problem.
Gators who have accidently roamed into a yard or other populated area are going to try to get back to the water, Harrigal said, but they aren’t going to move if they are surrounded by people and feel threatened. Stay away, keep children and pets away, and the gator will leave.
There’s no need to be concerned about alligators if you practice common sense, Harrigal said. View gators from a distance, be aware of your surroundings, never go in the water if you see an alligator. Don’t go near the edge of the water at dawn or dusk, when alligators feed.
And teach these precautions to children, just as you’d teach them how to safely cross the street. It’s unlikely an alligator will attack a full-grown person — an adult is just too big. But small children and pets are about the same size as a big gator’s prey, so they need to be kept away from water where gators are known to be present.
The recent death of a child in Florida was “tragic, but an incredible case of bad luck,” Harrigal said. “Not being from the South, they were not familiar with the rules  being gator safe and they violated one of the tenets: don’t splash around in the water at dusk. It was a terrible tragedy, but the media has blown the story out of proportion because alligator attacks are so unusual,” he said.
If homeowners see an alligator consistently hanging around, they can contact SCDNR and get a permit and tags to remove it. SCDNR doesn’t not remove alligators, but homeowners must have a SCDNR permit to remove one. There are private companies that can help.
But “just because you see an alligator in a river, doesn’t mean he’s a legitimate threat, just like seeing a car in a parking lot,” Harrigal said. “Alligators are just like cars: you don’t know what the car’s driver is doing or thinking, so you drive defensively.”
Humans and alligators have lived together for hundreds of years. Gators are in all the rivers, many lakes and occasionally the ocean when currents carry them out of the estuaries. And all documented problems between the two species have occurred when humans feed, harass or place themselves in a position where the gator sees them as either a food source or a threat.
“You are twice as likely to get hit by lightning than to get bitten by an alligator,” Harrigal said. “A large measure of common sense goes a long, long way.”

STAYING SAFE
Nearly any water body in the coastal plain of South Carolina may contain alligators, and the mere presence of alligators in or adjacent to their natural habitat in South Carolina is a normal occurrence and not normally an emergency requiring the animal’s removal, according to biologists with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Furthermore, alligators less than four feet are typically not large enough to be dangerous to people unless handled. Never approach an alligator of any size, keep your distance and leave them alone!
In addition, keep these safety tips in mind:
 Never feed alligators. Not only is it illegal in South Carolina to feed alligators, it also teaches them to associate people with food. This can cause alligators to lose their natural fear of humans. In many cases, fed alligators will begin to approach at the sight of people and may become aggressive in seeking a handout. These animals will be euthanized to prevent unwanted alligator interactions.
 Also, don’t dispose of fish scraps or crab bait in the water at boat ramps, docks, swimming, or camping areas. You can inadvertently be feeding alligators.
If you see someone feeding alligators, contact the S.C. Department of Natural Resources at 1-800-922-5431.
 Avoid swimming in areas known to harbor large alligators. As the size of an alligator increases, so does the size of prey that it can consume.
 Don’t swim or play in the water between dusk and dawn in areas with alligators. Alligators normally are more active during the night and can mistake splashing noises for prey. Only swim in areas designated for swimming. Higher levels of human activity found in designated swimming areas typically make alligators keep their distance.
 Other potential dangers include steep drop offs, stumps, rocks, and other underwater obstructions that you may not be able to see if the location is not a designated swimming area. Also, never swim alone, not just because of alligators, but also as a normal safety measure.
 Keep pets out of the water, even in designated swimming areas, if alligators are present. Pets are more susceptible to being attacked as they resemble normal prey items for alligators. Do not swim with your dog as it can attract the attention of alligators.
 Don’t approach an alligator, keep your distance and leave them alone. Alligators can move in quick bursts over short distances but normally do not try to run after people. If an alligator hisses, it’s a warning that you are too close.
 If an alligator is in a place where it cannot reasonably be expected to get back to the water without posing a risk to itself or to others, or is in a location that presents an immediate hazard, such as a road, school, pool, parking lot, etc., contact the DNR at 1-800-922-5431. Never attempt to capture or move an alligator by yourself.
 If bitten, seek immediate medical attention, regardless of how minor the injury. Alligator bites can result in serious infections.

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