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FL Press: Gators Prowl For Creature Comfort

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Posted by jason harlow on April 23, 2003 at 15:39:14:

Gators Prowl For Creature Comfort
Published: Apr 22, 2003

Love or something like it is in the air.
Bull alligators are in the mood and on the move, searching for mates, food and a little privacy.

Though some Floridians might be used to the alligator, on tip-toes, crossing the 18th hole at the golf course or gliding through the retention pond at the apartment complex, this time of year is different.

Encounters between humans and alligators rise noticeably as the big reptiles cross over land from one body of water to another.

Nature and suburbia collide, as it did twice this weekend in Polk and Pinellas counties: a woman who encountered two gators when she took a dip in a St. Petersburg retention pond, and a man who tried to wrestle a 7-footer off a Winter Haven road.

Both told authorities their judgment was impaired by alcohol or medication. Both emerged relatively unscathed.

Garages, back yards, swimming pools and highways become way stations on the alligators' spring forays. But that doesn't mean humans should be alarmed at every chance meeting. Or should race to the phone to report an emergency at first sight of a reptile lying on a sunny bank.

``Alligators digest their food lying in the sun,'' said Julie Harter, a Polk County teacher who moonlights as a licensed, alligator trapper.

The best choice might be to leave the alligator alone, said Gary Morse of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. ``Often alligators are not threatening,'' he said.

Wildlife officials have documented more than 300 alligator attacks since 1948. Only 12 were fatal.

The agency monitors complaints about nuisance alligators and contracts with licensed trappers to capture and kill the reptiles.

Authorities receive 75 to 100 calls a day during mating season, from late March through June or July.

Phone calls run higher on especially warm or rainy days, Morse said.

``We've had days when we've had 200 calls,'' he said.

Every year wildlife officers have to weed out the exaggerations that turn small harmless gators into aggressive 6-foot monsters.

Callers want to persuade a wildlife officer to dispatch a trapper to remove the alligator at once, Morse said.

``They don't want to deal with it,'' he said.

But inaccurate and unnecessary calls create a backlog of work for trappers and can hurt the program's effectiveness.

``The permit says it's an 8- footer. We get out there and it's 2 feet,'' Harter said.

Only alligators 4 feet or larger, that are nuisances, may be trapped for their meat and hide, which is how the trappers are compensated.

Last year, 4,956 nuisance alligator complaints were investigated by the commission's Lakeland regional office, which covers an 11-county area from Hudson to Fort Myers.

Trappers caught and killed 1,827 alligators.

Moving nuisance alligators isn't an option, Morse said.

``Once a gator has lost its fear of people, it doesn't matter where you put it, it's still not afraid of people, and it continues to pose a threat,'' Morse said.

Dumping an alligator in a new location also means the newcomer will fight for space and food with other alligators. There also is danger of introducing disease into the existing population.

Human behavior is the main reason alligators become nuisances, Harter said.

``It's because they've been fed,'' she said. ``They don't want to hunt and they look for handouts.''

They keep coming back to the same spot where they were fed and can become aggressive, Harter said.

Aggressive gators also can become victims of abuse and harassment, she said.

``It becomes the gators' fault no matter what,'' she said.

DON'T ...

* Feed or entice alligators. They lose their natural fear of humans when they associate food with people.

* Feed other wildlife near the water, throw fish scraps into the water or leave them along the shore.

* Allow pets to swim or run along the shore of water known to have large alligators, especially at dusk or evening when the reptiles feed. Dogs probably are the same size as an alligator's natural prey.

* Water-ski after dark in Florida. It's illegal and risky.

* Swim or allow pets to swim in areas where plants grow. Alligators favor this type of habitat. Swim in designated areas only.

* Try to remove alligators from their natural habitat or keep one as a pet. Alligators do not become tame in captivity and handling even a small one can result in bites.

* Feed, harass, molest or attempt to move or kill alligators. It's illegal. Violators should be reported to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's 24-hour, toll-free Wildlife Alert Hotline, 1-888-404-3922. Callers may remain anonymous and might be eligible for a reward.

(Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

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