Alligators and Humans in Florida

Ever since I moved to Florida, I have been fascinated by alligators. When I attended University of Central Florida, I conducted a lot of research about the American Alligator. Since both humans and alligators often share the same space, conflicts are inevatable, but if we can respect alligators' needs, then we can also learn to live and even appreciate living together. On this website, I disuss Alligators and Humans in Florida. Are we are a threat to each other?

Mikael Johansson

Introduction

 

Alligators belong to the group of reptiles named crocodilians. For 200 million years crocodilians have roamed the landmass we call Florida. Famous contemporaries, like the dinosaurs, are long since extinct. When humans came to Florida, 12,000 years ago, they did not only share the environment with alligators and other extant animals. Saber-tooth tigers and giant armadillos are examples of animals that no longer are seen in the Florida fauna. Only 30 years ago, the American alligator was also on the edge of extinction. It was seen as a dangerous pest that was only worth something dead. By killing this sharp-toothed creature, humans acquired, not only land that could be drained and developed, but also valuable skin that could be sold.

 

Nowadays, the alligator is no longer endangered. In our time, it is worth more alive than dead. Alligator farms that produce meat and hides has become a big industry in Florida, and tourists, who generate a lot of money, travel to the sunshine state from all over the world to see these prehistoric reptiles in the wild. Scientists find it important to study the alligator to learn about our own future. Unfortunately, there are still many conflicts that need to be settled between alligators and humans. Are we a threat to each other?

 

History

 

The relationship between crocodilians and humans have always been heated. Through history, crocodilians have been seen as powers of both good and evil. The ancient Egyptians even had a crocodile god—Sobek. Large temples were dedicated to this powerful god who was the son of Neith—the oldest of the goddesses.

 

Alligators and Humans in Florida

 

Other places with great historical tales of crocodilians are China, Southeast Asia, and Australia—but what about Florida? The French explorer Le Moyne drew a picture in 1565, which shows a scene where Florida Indians are killing alligators.

Alligators and humans have shared the swamps and lakes of Florida for centuries. Native Indians occasionally utilized this reptile for food, but not until European immigrants started to produce alligator skin products did hunting in a larger scale start.

 

Alligator products

 

Commercial utilization started, in a small scale, as early as the 1700s. In the later 1800s, the demands of products made from alligator skins escalated. It is believed that 2.5 million alligators were killed in 19th century Florida.1 The hunting continued over the turn of the century, and the effect it had on the numbers of alligators in Florida can be seen in old trade records. From the 190,000 hides traded in 1929, it dropped to only 6,800 in 1943. In 1944, laws giving some protection to the rapidly dwindling alligator population in Florida were introduced. These laws slowed down the decline but not enough to leave the current road toward extinction. Finally, in 1962, Florida authorities gave the alligator full protection. This measure was still not enough, however. Illegal poaching was still a threat, which continued until 1970 when the alligator was included in the Lacey Act. A century of unrestricted hunting had depleted most accessible populations in Florida. Up until this point in time, it is estimated that 10 million alligators had been killed in a hundred-year period.2 Originally, the Lacey Act made interstate commerce in illegally taken mammals and birds a federal violation, but now it was revised to also include reptiles, amphibians, and fish. This proceeding stopped the illegal trade, and alligators started to repopulate areas where they earlier had been hunted down. Since 1987, Alligator Mississippiensis is no longer considered an endangered species, but it is still classified as threatened. The reason for this is the similarity in appearance to its Florida cousin, the endangered American Crocodile. Much of the recovery of the American alligator is due to a successful management program. The conservation strategy has been to prevent the depletion of natural resources. Alligator farms have been established to bring revenue to the state and to satisfy the demand of exotic products. Another purpose of these farms is to sustain a wild alligator population. In modern Florida, alligator farming has become a thriving multi-million dollar industry. There are about 30 farms in Florida, which generates almost 140,000 pounds of meat, and more than 25,000 hides. The combined sales of Florida alligator hide and meat is about 4.5 million dollar a year.3

 

Human Threats to the Alligator:

 

Between one and two million alligators are swimming around in Florida waters today. As much as humans like the sunshine state, so do these creatures. The human world has not always conformed to the world of the alligators; therefore, they face a plethora of problems caused by humans: Pollution, declining of water quality, and habitat loss are some of the threats. According to Franklin Percival, a National Survey scientist from the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at University of Florida, the biggest threat is loss of habitat, either directly or by pollution. He explains that with the word “pollution,” he does not only mean the introduction of contaminants that have a direct impact on animals, but also different nutrients like fertilizers and animal wastes that cause eutrophication of wetlands. Percival says that usually the wetland loss results from a short-term economic gain and of our desire to keep the water level the same.4

 

A healthy strain of alligators is important for a healthy nature. What would happen if the alligator disappeared? Percival explains that “as keystone species, many other organisms are dependent upon their holes and trails during droughts. Biodiversity would have been affected quite severely by the time alligators were eliminated”.4 The holes he is talking about are depressions in the wetlands, created and maintained by alligators, that many times are the only refuge for other aquatic animals in dry periods. As the rain brings water to the swamp or lake again, these animals can repopulate the area unless they have not become a needed meal for the host of the pond. In addition to the ponds, much of the high ground in a swamp can also be contributed to alligators. These pieces of land are old nest mounds or pond banks that are important as dry islands for other animals. Today in Florida, much of this environment has been destroyed. For example, when drainage canals began to alter the natural water cycle, large areas of the Everglades dried out; fresh water was diverted out in the sea rather than to the swamplands in the south. These new dry conditions have created lands where conflagrations have created an eroded landscape. Water management in Florida is another threat responsible for five times as many alligator nests than normal being destroyed by flooding. This is a serious issue according to Franklin Percival. “Once we have affected a wetland, restoration is extremely complicated and expensive in terms of money and time”.4 How do we get the rest of the populace to care about maintenance of natural ecosystems? “The best solution wetland loss and degradation is public education and information,” says Percival.

 

Alligator threats humans:

With Florida's rapidly growing human population and urbanization close to alligator habitats, an increased contact between alligators and humans is inevitable, especially since people want to live in waterfront homes. As a result of this infringement from people on alligator domains, some people found themselves being neighbors with much larger reptiles than the iguanids that hasten across our walkways. While some people are fine with that and try to coexist, others find it unpleasant to know that alligators share the neighborhood. The number of alligator complaints has risen at the same rate as the number of people moving to Florida. The majority of problems with alligators are that they show up in places where they are not wanted. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) gets about 15,000 complaints every year. Independent trappers are commissioned to remove approximately 5,000 nuisance alligators per year that are considered a risk for the public. The rest of the complaints are not considered to be truly nuisances. Captured alligators used to be relocated to more remote places, but that is not possible anymore since there are no more vacant places. Instead they are captured and killed by trappers who get their income from selling the parts of the alligator. These private trappers are part of the Nuisance Alligator Program, which was introduced in the late 1970s. This program was initiated to maintain a viable alligator population while providing an acceptable level of public safety. While trappers who catch nuisance alligators do so for their living, other people pay money to hunt alligators. As opposite to the past, alligator hunting in Florida of today is strictly regulated. Each year, the FWC selects up to 500 hunters randomly from the about 7000 applicants. In designated bodies of water, these hunters are then allowed to harvest a limited number of alligators.

 
Even though an alligator’s appearance commands respect, the risk of being injured by this animal is low. Since the alligator can be a fierce predator, however, the risk of being attacked does exist, especially if precaution is not taken. In contrast to some people, who are maybe exaggeratedly afraid of alligators, other people show no fear at all and delightedly feed them. This action causes a problem since the animals lose their shyness of humans. Instead the alligators associate people with food, thus increasing the risk of tragic human sacrifices. That is the reason why it is strictly forbidden to feed or entice alligators in Florida.

 

FWC tries to educate people about gator safety and has many recommendations to people visiting or living in Florida in order to eliminate the risk of physical encounters with alligators. Other concerns and complaints people have are when livestock and pets fall victims for these predators. They also damage fishing gear and cause traffic hazards when crossing roads.

 

The Alligator Nuisance Program has been effective. Since this program was introduced 1978, the rate of attacks has not increase, and severe attacks on humans show evidence of a decline.5 Walt Rhodes, Alligator Project Supervisor at Dennis Wildlife Research Center in South Carolina, believes that the main thing to do is to educate the public about alligators, which is not always an easy task. “After dealing with the public for so many years, I almost feel like humans are born with this innate fear of gators, much like with snakes, sharks and wolves”.6 There are other animals that we should fear more that alligators according to Rhodes.

The truth is, cuddly things like deer and domestic dogs kill or injure more people than gators. The gators aren't going to win any beauty contests, which is a strike against them. So, we must educate people on the correct facts about gators; the roles they play in the environment, they're not man-eaters, etc. It is basically dispelling the myths that have been passed on through generations.6

 

Abnormalities in alligators, also in humans?

 

One of Florida's largest lakes, Lake Apopka, has become an environmental tragedy. This can be seen in the fivefold decline of baby alligators since the early 1980s.7 The area around the lake has always been a rich farmland, and it is suspected that chemicals used as pesticides are factors that have contributed to the catastrophe. Decades of farming has also left the lake flooded with nutrients that feed algae, giving the lake a green color and driving out many types of fish. In addition, a nearby chemical company’s overflowing retaining pond caused detrimental chemicals to enter the lake in 1980. As a first process of restoration, the farmers around the lake were bought out. When the former fields were kept flooded again, a paradise for fish-eating birds was created. This measure caused the next brick to fall in the catastrophe. Birds started to die in large numbers so the fields had to be pumped dry again to make the birds leave. The deaths of the birds are thought to be tied to pesticides that farmers depended on for decades.8

 

What about the alligators that dwell in and around the lake? Even though the number of eggs hatched versus the number of eggs laid has risen from around 20% 1983 to around 50% 1994-95, other lakes in Florida used as references have around 80% clutch viability.9 These detrimental chemicals have also feminized embryos in alligator eggs, thus creating only females. Male alligators have had low testosterone and have not been able to mate.10 Alligators were also born with part-female, part-male genitals. According to Louis Guilette, zoology professor at University of Florida, this problem is important to study because “if there is a problem with alligators, we should be looking for a problem in humans”.7 As a comparison to the reference lake, Lake Woodruff, no alligators with sexual defects can be found. The issue of endocrine disruption has become polarized amongst scientists. Perran Ross from the Florida Museum of Natural History warns about hormone-disruptive compounds that can be damaging in any amount. “There may be no safe limit, and mixtures of compounds may be many times more potent than the sum of their individual effects”.10 Other scientists, like Theo Colborn and Fredrick Vom Saal, are also concerned about hormone mimicking chemicals. Although it is known that hormone-altering chemicals like DDT and PCB are detrimental for animals, there is little proof of how they can or will affect humans in high doses. Stephen Safe, Professor of Toxicology, Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology at Texas A&M, acknowledges the severity of wildlife damage in places like Lake Apopka, but he does not believe that these chemicals are detrimental for humans and animals in less contaminated areas.7 He is not particularly concerned about what happens to the alligators in Lake Apopka in regards to regarding human risks, “I think the evidence does not show a parallel between what's happening to the alligators and what's happening to humans. We live in a slightly different environment,” he says.11 Even though DDT and PCB are forbidden now, it is not known if there are other hormone-imitating chemicals that are still used. These kind of chemicals can cause infertility and other reproductive disorders that can be devastating.7

 

To restore a healthy lake, including a healthy alligator population, a marsh filtration system on the shore of Lake Apopka will be used. It is supposed to filter out alga and particles containing phosphorus and other nutrients. Clean water will then be returned to Lake Apopka to convert the vegetation to wetland plants.

 

What can we humans learn from this master of survival?

 

Walt Rhodes believes that the efficiency of the alligator is something that we humans can learn from.

They don't waste energy, resources or time. In general, we do the opposite in all cases. Energy consumption could be more efficient (when gators move it's with a purpose in mind), we don't regard water or food as limited (gators digest nearly everything ounce of what they consume, essentially nothing is wasted), and god knows we waste time (gators, while they lie around a lot, it is with the purpose of maintaining body temperature and capturing prey).6

Studies like, for example, Walt Rhodes and his partner Jeffrey Lang have made about alligator sex ratios can be useful for humans. Since the alligator is at the top of the food chain, it is a good indicator of the environment. “If we monitor them for years and see that something has changed in the alligator sex ratio, then we’ll know it could be something in the environment,” Rhodes says in an article from Discover.10

 

Paul Cardeilhac, an aquatic-animal veterinarian at the University of Florida in Gainesville points out the importance of studying the alligator in order to monitor the health of Mother Earth. “The alligator is the ultimate monitor for water and its environment generally, especially over large areas,” he says in an article from National Wildlife.12

 

Franklin Percival has a comment on why it is important, other than morally, to preserve the alligator.

I think eliminating alligators (i.e. alligator habitat) in Florida would be synonymous to eliminating mountains in Colorado. We market the state on its natural features and at the same time are trying to destroy it. Look at the postcards on sale at convenience stores, motels, or turnpike rest areas; a large percentage is images of pristine beaches, sunsets, birds, alligators, Everglades, etc.4

 

Conclusion

 

I have learned that there are many devoted people who are working on solutions on how to learn to coexist with our friend, the alligator. Other people believe that we should get rid of our enemy, the alligator. The alligator is not an enemy, nor is it a friend. (Most friends would not try to eat you if they had the chance.) It has longer and sharper teeth than most other animals in the Florida fauna, but otherwise it is just another animal with its place in the ecosystem. We live in a world full of risks. There are many other, more serious, perils to worry about than being attacked by an alligator. Instead, we should try to see the beauty and importance of alligators. It is unfortunate that money and human egoism rule our world, not at least in Florida. Short-term economical interests take precedence over long-term life saving projects. Luckily there are people like Walt Rhodes who work hard for preserving the nature and the wild life in it.

I have gone on record many times in interviews stating that unless we change some of these perceptions about gators and learn to coexist with them, their populations will be relegated to only the "wildest" places on earth such as deep swamps. To me, this is awful because only the ablest of humans, the ones that can venture to these areas, will be able to learn and appreciate this fascinating animal, which is a disservice to the animal and humans both.6

 

Lastly, the famouse crocodile hunter Steve Irwin's piece of advice if you happen to come too close to an alligator: "If a particularly grumpy fella does take a shine to you, run in a straight line as fast as you bloody well can. That zigzag theory you've heard about? It's a load of hooey. By the time you've zigged, he's zagged, and you've got problems, mate. Straight line. In exactly the opposite direction he's coming from”.13

 

References 

 

[1] Alderton, David. Crocodiles and Alligators of the World. London: Blendford, 1991.

[2] Florida’s Alligators and Crocodiles. November 30, 2001.  Florida Power & Light Company (FPL).

[3] Crawford, Bob. "Department Consumer Interest Column #202 - 04/04/97". November 30, 2001.                                  

[4] Percival, Franklin. Personal interview by Mikael Johansson. October 22, 2001.

[5] Woodward, Allan R. and Cook, Barry L. “Nuisance-Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) Control in Florida, USA”. November 30, 2001.

[6] Rhodes, Walt. Personal interview by Mikael Johansson. October 19, 2001.

[7] Cone, Marla. “The Gender Warp: Sexual Confusion in the Wild” Los Angeles Times 2 October 1994.

[8] Patterson, Steve. “Lake Apopka: An Environmental Tragedy”. November 30, 2001. 

[9] Guilette, Louis J., Crain, Andrew D., and Gunderson, Mark P. “Alligators and Endocrine Disrupting Contaminants: a Current Perspective.” American Zoologist 40 (2000):438-52.

[10] McClintock, Jack. “Alligator” Discover. May 2001: 53-59.

[11] Safe, Stephen. Interview by Doug Hamilton, Frontline. November 30, 2001. 

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/nature/interviews/safe.html

[12] Stewart, Doug. “Visiting the Heart of Alligator County.” National Wildlife. June/July2000: 20-27.

[13] Irwin, Steve. “They're called water hazards for a reason.” Esquire August 1999: 92-94.

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