by Whit Gibbons

July 15, 2012

An alligator bit off the arm of a teenage boy who was swimming in a Florida lake on July 9. The alligator was killed. Fortunately, the boy survived. News stories about alligator attacks always generate many questions, such as the following.

Q. I belong to a water ski association near Charleston, S.C. We occasionally see gators in the area, and after the alligator attack in Florida some of the skiers are a little anxious about getting in the water. Are the large ones more likely to be aggressive than the smaller ones? No one in our group feeds the gators, and our members are skiing enthusiasts who enjoy waterskiing more than they fear gators, but any information you can give us to make our sport safer would be appreciated.

A. Your concerns are understandable, but the threat is minimal. I have worked around alligators for many years, and the only bites or bruises my colleagues or I have experienced have come while actually capturing a gator. Although the bizarre is always possible with wild animals, I would not hesitate to waterski merely because alligators are present. The dangers on the highway leading to your ski area are a thousand times greater than the dangers from the reptiles in the water. But traffic accidents are commonplace, whereas experiences with potentially harmful wild animals are in the realm of the unknown for most people.

One important point: large alligators should be wary of the presence of humans where you are skiing. Be alert if one approaches the boat or swims toward a person in the water. You mentioned that water-skiers in your group do not feed the gators, but other people might. Wild alligators that have been fed by humans are the source of many of the recorded alligator bites. As with other wild animals, alligators that have been fed may have lost their wariness of people but they are nonetheless wild.

Alligators are huge, and like other very large animals they can cause injuries merely because of their size. But alligators also have big mouths and extremely sharp teeth. Fed alligators are attracted to people and are expecting to get something to eat, which regrettably could end up being a person. Although it is of little comfort to someone who has been attacked by an alligator, such incidents are extremely rare.

Q. Are large alligators more aggressive than smaller ones? What is the most dangerous size alligator to someone on land? It seems like smaller ones could run faster.

A. As a general rule, the most dangerous size alligator to find in the wild is a newborn baby. Adult females (which are smaller than the males but can reach lengths of more than nine feet) will vigorously defend their nests and babies. A baby alligator may let someone walking along shore pick it up, but when it is scared it will start making a squeaking sound, which brings the mother gator to protect it. A mother alligator will come up on land with mouth open to chase a person away. Her objective is to frighten away the intruder, and she typically will not continue in pursuit once a person retreats. The behavior is perceived as highly aggressive, but in reality it is strictly a defensive measure to protect her young.

Male alligators are aggressive toward other males during the mating season and perhaps other times, but I have never seen one be aggressive toward a person. However, it is conceivable that a territorial male alligator could temporarily mistake someone swimming as a competitor male, or perhaps as some other invader of its territory, and attack.

Q. Are there any defensive methods if attacked by an alligator?

A. On land, back away, then run if an alligator comes out of the water toward you. If you are in the water, try to get to shore. As a last resort, fight back by hitting the animal in the face, even though the effort may seem futile.

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