ALLIGATORS REALLY ATTACK PEOPLE?
September 27, 2009
I wrote about William Bartram's "Travels," published in 1791,
and how some biologists viewed his estimates of alligator size to be exaggerated.
Some of his descriptions of alligator behavior have also been received
most serious challenges have come from his descriptions of unruly alligator
behavior--attacks when he was out on the water in a boat. He tells of
a time when large alligators approached, "rushing up with their heads
and part of their bodies, roaring terribly and belching floods of water
over me." I do not believe such an attack is likely to occur today,
as alligators are much more wary of humans, but I do believe his account.
And I have three plausible explanations for anyone who would refute Bartram's
story that alligators attacked his boat.
seemingly made on people by alligators actually have nothing to do with
the human. Someone walking a dog on a leash or dragging a string of fish
behind a boat might be approached by an alligator. I have seen alligators
move readily toward these two kinds of prey (dogs and fish). Human self-centeredness
might prompt us to consider ourselves the target of an alligator attack
in these instances. In Bartram's case, the alligators may have been attracted
by fish or mammal skins that he carried in his boat. If so, he may be
forgiven for thinking they were attacking him.
possibility is maternal instinct. I once wrote, "Most reports of
unprovoked alligator attacks on people are equivocal, although numerous
attacks in response to provocationalbeit unwitting provocation in
most instanceshave been documented." Of course the caveat here
is, how do you know if you have provoked an alligator? Maybe you have
come too close to a nest or a baby swimming nearby, which may qualify
as "provocative" behavior from the perspective of a protective
mother alligator. Maybe Bartram was in the vicinity of active alligator
nests or near one or more pods of baby gators with their mothers close
at hand. Based on my own experiences as someone who was terrified of what
an enraged mother alligator coming out of the water toward me might do
(as well as being really annoyed at myself for getting in a position to
find out), I assure you to say you were "attacked" does not
seem like hyperbole.
explanation is perhaps the most believable one, as the incident presumably
occurred during the mating season when combative bull alligators demonstrate
their intolerance of other males entering their territory. The population
Bartram was dealing with might never have seen a boat, so it might have
been perceived by them as a large gator entering already declared territory.
The idea of alligators bellowing, snapping their massive jaws, and rising
above the water's surface thus creating a cascade effect off of the jaws
and body is in no way unbelievable.
If two or
more dominant males had converged on Bartram and his boat (the real target),
such aggressive behavior is unquestionably within their repertoire. Beating
them off with a club like he did sounds like a perfectly normal response
by someone who did not have a shotgun, harpoon, or explosive boom stick,
like modern hide hunters who kill alligators. I enjoyed Bartram's accounts
of his alligator battles. Furthermore, I believe far more of what he says
happened (possibly all of it) than do the Bartram bashers.
traveled through uncharted lands and waters that few people had seen before.
He encountered animals, plants, and habitats never before chronicled.
If some of his descriptions seem to us to be embellished, we will do well
to remember that the land he traversed was not the one we know today.
Virgin forests, unpolluted waters, unplowed lands abounded, along with
the wildlife that inhabited them. Clearly, Bartram's powers of observation
were remarkable. Some of his descriptions have been acknowledged as accurate
from the beginning, when they were first reported; others that were challenged
at the time have later proved to be true. As for me, I will continue to
think Bartram's descriptions were correct, especially about alligators,
until someone can convince me otherwise. So far, no one has.
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