Death by Alligator

Floridians are in a panic over a sudden killing spree. Here's why the gators are attacking

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WILFREDO LEE / AP

A 9-foot, 4-inch alligator bares his teeth as he is captured Monday, May 15, 2006, in a lake behind some homes in North Miami Beach, Fla.

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There are also more alligators around today than ever because of the reptile's 20-year stint on the federal endangered-species list. Back in 1967, when it was formally listed, trapping for meat and hides had reduced the alligator population in Florida to no more than 300,000. Now there are 1 million to 2 million. At the same time, the state's human population has exploded. As a result, development is pushing into wetlands that were once pure, alligator-friendly wilderness, and agriculture is draining huge swaths of alligator habitat. Everglades National Park is just one-seventh the size of the historic Everglades swampland, forcing the animals to share territory that humans consider their own.

It's a familiar story. In the American West, mountain lions are getting squeezed, and lethal attacks by the big cats have become more frequent. In the Northeast, it is black bears, foraging in suburban backyards. In Florida, it's alligators. And unlike cougars and bears, which are rarely spotted, alligators are everywhere and are almost always docile. Along a path just inside Everglades park's Shark Valley entrance, for example, alligators loll along the bank of the adjacent canal, as uninterested in the people as they are in the bugs that swirl overhead. Yet park employees have seen tourists run over alligators with bikes and wheelchairs, throw rocks at them and stab them with sticks. People even put kids on the backs of the creatures for a gator photo op. "The alligator isn't the problem. It's humans," says park naturalist Maria Thomson. "We're pushing them to the limit."

And every so often, they push back. Whenever an alligator kills a human, the state sends out trappers to catch and kill it. The animals responsible for the three recent attacks have all been trapped. Parts of Jimenez were found in the belly of a 9 1/2-ft. alligator, Cooper's arm and hand were recovered from an 8 1/2-footer, and Campbell's killer was identified by scratches around its eye. But it's not as if those particular alligators were more dangerous than most, and destroying them won't prevent future attacks. Officials say the best ways to avoid becoming dinner for an alligator are not to feed the animals, which can lead them to lose their natural wariness; to stay away from the water's edge at dusk and dawn, when the creatures tend to hunt; and to be generally wary in and around the water. "A little gator common sense," says state-certified trapper Todd Hardwick, "takes you a long way."

Even so, people are still going to run afoul of alligators. And while three deaths in a week establish a benchmark of horror that probably won't be repeated soon, encounters between alligators and people are bound to increase. "We're putting our lives on the line," says Hardwick, "so you can have a safe backyard."

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