AND ALLIGATORS ARE VERY DIFFERENT
by Whit Gibbons
August 1, 2004
reported another alligator attack last week. As more people invade alligator
habitat in southern states, we have (or at least should have) come to
expect such news during the warmer months of the year. Contact between
us and them is steadily increasing. Ironically, humans, the invasive species,
are the ones who become offended when another species takes objection
to our presence.
I do not
want to belittle or trivialize the traumatic experience suffered by anyone
who has been injured by an alligator or had a family member, friend, or
pet actually killed by one. However, a comparison between American alligators
and some crocodiles is worth considering, if for no other reason than
to show how a truly aggressive species copes with interlopers. The saltwater
crocodiles of Australia are very different from American alligators in
their response to humans-they will attack and eat people. These are the
reptile world's equivalent of great white sharks or Bengal tigers. They
frequent ocean habitats as well as rivers and freshwater marshes near
where people live. Their maximum size is enormous, more than 20 feet.
A crocodile only 15 feet long could easily kill and swallow a full-grown
prevailing views about the sanctity of human life, some predators view
people as simply another source of protein. And people living in areas
where such attacks are common often develop different attitudes from what
we are accustomed to. For example, one journalist noted that people inhabiting
the Northern Territory in Australia "seemed almost jubilant whenever
someone was taken by a crocodile." When a "mineworker met a
grisly death in the jaws of a giant crocodile" in a national park,
many of the residents in the Northern Territory displayed "widespread
and bizarre delight" that the crocodile had been victorious.
I visited the region near Darwin, Australia, someone was killed and eaten
by a saltwater crocodile in the Adelaide River. The local folk I talked
with the next day were seemingly unmoved by the incident. Why the lack
of compassion by the residents? Because, as someone said, they view themselves
as "rugged frontiersmen carving out an existence in an untamed wilderness."
They reject even the hint of a suggestion that the crocodile population
be reduced in any way.
attitude about the saltwater crocodile by old-time residents is based
on the principle that the rivers of northern Australia belong to the crocodile.
If humans want to share the waters and adjoining land, they must assess
the risks of these giant predators and be prepared to live (or die) with
them. This is my image of the pioneering spirit of early America, which
differs dramatically from the attitude of most Americans today.
What is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile, aside from
the fact that some crocodiles will eat people? The answer is not simple.
Almost two dozen species of crocodilians exist today, which vary greatly
in shape and size. However, American alligators have broad snouts, and
American crocodiles, which are native to southern Florida, have narrower
snouts. Fortunately, American crocodiles do not indulge in the antisocial
behavior of eating people. American crocodiles, in fact, behave somewhat
like alligators, which are usually shy and inoffensive.
consider American alligators a menace because they occasionally attack
people, but this seldom happens without some provocation. Almost all alligator
attacks can be traced back to human irresponsibility of some sort, including
people feeding alligators. Yet, if an animal causes harm to people, we
hold the animal responsible, without considering that we may have entered
its natural environment, threatened its young, and destroyed its habitat.
Maybe Americans need to be more accepting of the nature of wild animals
and more willing to share the environment with them. This doesn't mean
we need acquiesce to the idea that humans are acceptable prey items, but
none of our native species are typically out to make a meal of us.
alligator attacks or other unfortunate encounters with nature we must
consider the rules of safety and probabilities of risk when dealing with
any animal that could bite, trample, scratch, sting, or otherwise injure
us. Developing an attitude that we must be the responsible ones and not
the animals themselves will be a good first step.
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