In bucolic Beaufort, South Carolina where I now reside, the locals are keen to set Northerners straight about alligators. They’re omnipresent — they’re everywhere. They’re like squirrels in the Lowcountry [and believe me, my backyard is full of squirrels.] And while intimidating, recorded alligator attacks are few and far between. In fact, only 21 cases have been documented in Beaufort County since 1915 — seven of which occurred on Hilton Head Island, approximately 35 miles south of the historic town of Beaufort.
The Alligator Caveat - Don’t Feed the Beast!
Alligators are not prone to make the first move. In most instances, when approached by a human, they will tend to slide off a bank where they've been sunning and submerge into marshy waters on the river banks that border the county. Ashley Jean Reese, contributor for the Island Packet notes that “even when spotted on dry land, gators tend to just go about their business.”
However with that said, some alligators are just down-right mean and ornery. According to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologist Jay Butfiloski, “Problem behavior is an animal that shows aggression, approaches people or is being fed.”
The “being fed” is the trigger you really should be cognizant about. You can’t make a pet out of an alligator, and making friends with food is just not a wise move. Like the signs in zoos that warn us not to “feed the animals,” that same warning-alert should go off in your head when you spot one.
Feeding an alligator forms a bond of sorts. A mental association that connects man to food is not what you want from the alligators you come in contact with. Think of it this way: if you haven't come bearing food, you just might become the food.
Understanding Reptile Mentality . . .
It’s key to understand how an alligator thinks. There are a number of misconceptions about these creatures that should be laid to rest, namely:
- “Run in a zigzag to get away from an alligator. It confuses them!”
- “Alligators have horrible eyesight. Unless you’re right in front of them, they can’t see you!”
- “Just put up a fence! Alligators can’t climb.”
Running in a zigzag is never advised. The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory Herpetology Program suggests staying at least 60 feet away from an alligator to avoid any kind of confrontation. Then continue to move slowly lengthening the distance.
In regards to eyesight, alligators are adapted to sense of movement to catch their prey and are wired with a broad sight range that permits them to see everywhere except directly behind them.
And in regards to fences, residences in areas known to have an alligator population should be aware that alligators can climb. Small pet owners should not leave their animals outside alone if the only protection is a small fence.
Gator Tips that won’t trip you up . . .
Here are a few more safety tips from the SREL Herpetology Program:
- 1. Never disrupt an alligator’s nest or attempt to play with small gators. Alligators are most likely to attack during breeding and nesting season, which in South Carolina occurs between March and July.
- 2. Do not attempt to keep alligators as pets. State law prohibits the possession of alligators for this purpose, and as described above, it’s just not a wise decision.
- 3. Keep pets and small children away from alligators. Small dogs resemble natural prey to alligators, making them prone to attack. Don’t walk your dog or play with your children along the water’s edge or let them drink from or get into the water if alligators are present. Important to note: To an alligator, a splash in the water is like ringing the dinner bell — it announces the presence of potential prey.
- 4. Don’t become complacent when swimming in a gator habitat or doing any kind of activity near water’s edge. Stay in pairs, stay attentive. Avoid areas with heavy vegetation. Do not splash the water. Do not swim at night. Avoid swimming in areas with large alligators, which are more likely to attack.
- 5. Never corner an alligator. Alligators will most likely retreat into the water when approached near a water source. However, an alligator will not flee when surrounded by dry land; it will stand its ground.
See you later, gator . . .
Other tips about our scaly wildlife friends can be found here.
While the alligator is a protected reptile in South Carolina, there are times the state government may open a special season to thin the herd - sort of speak. Stay safe. This creature is beautiful to observe — just not up close and personal.