Visiting Florida? How To Avoid Alligator Attacks
You may have seen the viral video of the man punching an alligator to save his tiny dog. While the outcome fills us with warm, fuzzy feelings, ideally, that dangerous situation would have been avoided altogether.
Population growth and a boost to the tourism industry have increased the frequency of human-alligator interactions in Florida, which means getting knowledgeable about alligators is more important than ever.
Alligator bites are painful and terrifying, but, thankfully, most people survive an alligator attack with little more than temporary discomfort. That being said, American alligators are territorial predators with massive jaws and lots of teeth that should never be taken lightly. An attack can go south in a single moment and alter the course of a life.
Staying Safe When Living Near Alligators
Most of the “Deep South” within the US sees the American Alligator as a prominent part of the local ecosystem. Homes, neighborhoods, and even shopping centers are built inside the alligator’s natural habitat, which makes encounters all the more common. A professor of wildlife ecology once said that the longer you stay inside the area that the alligator perceives as its own, the more likely you are to be attacked.
Most wild animals have a natural fear of humans, but that doesn’t mean you can or should tempt fate by feeding alligators fish scraps, for example, without expecting negative consequences.
How Many Alligators Are in Florida?
It’s estimated that 1.25 million alligators live in Florida and can be found in each of the 67 counties. They live in practically all fresh and brackish water bodies and, occasionally, salt water.
It may be hard to believe, but American alligators were once threatened by extinction. They were placed on the Endangered Species List back in 1967, and their population quickly increased. Alligators mate once every year, but a typical nest will include 20-50 alligator eggs.
They are now classified as Least Concern. The alligator numbers as a whole are increasing; however their habitat continues to be threatened by wetland drainage and development.
Here’s Where to Call if there is an Aggressive Alligator in Your Neighborhood
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a toll-free Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-FWC-GATOR (866-392-4286) for nuisance alligator situations such as an aggressive gator terrorizing your neighborhood.
Generally, for an alligator to be considered a nuisance, it will be at least 4 feet in length, and the caller will believe it poses a threat to people, pets, or property in their near vicinity.
Occasionally, smaller alligators will end up where they shouldn’t, such as swimming pools, garages, etc, and these alligators must be removed, as well.
When someone becomes concerned about an alligator in any of these situations, the FWC dispatches one of their contracted nuisance alligator trappers to resolve the situation. These trappers are highly trained, and any maneuvers you see them do with alligators should never be attempted or replicated by anyone other than another trained professional.
Complainants must be able to grant legal access to the property on which the alligator is located. SNAP only permits the removal of nuisance alligators from private or publicly managed property after first obtaining permission from the property owner or management authority.
How Common Are Alligator Attack Instances?
The FWC has kept a record of “unprovoked bite incidents” since 1948 and reports that, between then and November 2021, there were only 442 alligator attacks. Only 26 of those resulted in human fatalities. The average is currently about seven alligator attacks per year.
As you can see, when taking the proper safety precautions, alligator attacks aren’t something Florida locals or visitors have to worry too much about.
Are Bites Ever From Unprovoked Alligator Attack?
Yes, but they’re not often without cause. When people don’t abide by the correct safety tips, such as not depositing fish scraps by the water’s edge, boat ramps, or fish camps, alligators learn dangerous habits, like associating humans with food. That causes alligators to target humans. So, even if you’re not the one who didn’t dispose of your fish scraps properly, you could still be happened upon by an alligator trained to seek food from humans.
It’s these kinds of attacks that are labeled “unprovoked.” The victim technically did nothing to deserve an attack from an alligator, but they were still targeted.
What Causes Alligator Attacks?
There are many things that provoke alligators. Almost every one of these things can be avoided with some careful consideration about things such as where and when you walk or go swimming, how you dispose of your fish remains, and where you live.
When is Alligator Mating Season?
Courtship for the American Alligator begins in early April, and mating occurs in May or June. During this time, alligators are much more territorial and aggressive. It’s crucial to be extra careful during mating season and stay far away from any alligators so that they don’t feel threatened. Keep your dogs or other pets quiet and away from alligators so as not to provoke them.
Don’t Provoke, Don’t Feed, Don’t Panic
Alligators are typically defensive animals. They tend to only strike out when they sense danger. As long as you take the proper safety steps and be wary of alligators like your life depends on it (because it very well might), you should be fine. Your chances of being the victim of an unprovoked alligator attack are 1 in 3.1 million.
Heed Warning Signs
Always be aware of any signs warning of high alligator concentrations, mating season, or breeding areas. These signs all indicate a higher chance of coming face-to-face with an alligator. Also, only swim within posted safe areas.
Swim During the Day
Always swim during daylight hours. Alligators are most active at night and are very hard to see unless you can catch their eyes glinting in a light. If you’re swimming, you’re likely not going to be shining a flashlight around and being your most watchful self.
Suppose an alligator sees a human splashing around their territory in the middle of the night. In that case, you can probably assume that alligator will attack or at least show more interest than is comfortable.
Don’t Swim Alone
Two sets of eyes are minimal for swimming in areas where alligators are known to live. You may be careful and vigilant, but it’s a fact that you cannot be looking everywhere at once. With a friend nearby, you are much less likely to be snuck up on or swim near something you shouldn’t.
Don’t Swim in Areas of High Vegetation
Once again, it is a matter of visibility. Lots of vegetation makes it nearly impossible to see an alligator coming up on you. You may accidentally stumble near a nest or surprise a resting gator, which would likely lead to some aggressive actions from the animal, and you might not be able to see well enough to get away, or you may find yourself tangled in a mess of weeds and roots that are difficult to manage.
It is better to be in areas with clear water where you have a line of sight to the bottom, and you’re not inhibited by tangly plants hugging your legs.
Keep Your Pets Away from the Water
Keep your pets, especially dogs, far from the water where you know gators live. They are in more danger from alligators than humans because they resemble the reptiles’ natural prey. Stay within the posted safe areas and keep a sharp eye out any time your pet is in the water.
Also, if you see an alligator and your pet is with you, keep them quiet and keep their attention diverted. You don’t want to trigger the alligator into a fight-or-flight response.
Look for the Telltale Signs that a Gator Lives Nearby
Alligators often sun themselves on logs or banks, or they may bask in the sun with only their eyes and nostrils above water.
If you see something there for one second and then it’s gone the next without a sound, be wary. Alligators often slide into the water silently without making a splash.
Alligators bellow loudly during the mating season, which runs from April to June. If you hear this noise, go the other direction and stay out of the water.
Nests are built of vegetation and are usually located on dry land very near the water. If you see a nest, give it a wide berth. Alligator mothers are among the most aggressive alligators when protecting their young.
Watch for tracks. Alligator tracks look like those of a large lizard or dinosaur.
Beware the Baby Gator
While baby alligators are undeniably cute, they are not harmless. Their reflexes are lightning fast, and they can run up to fifteen miles per hour! Do not ever try to pick up, feed, or take a photo with a baby alligator.
On top of the danger that the baby alligator poses, where there is a baby alligator, there is likely a mother nearby. If she gets any inclination that you are getting too near her baby or acting even slightly aggressive, you might just find yourself on the receiving end of a mother’s protective instincts, which is a place you very much don’t want to be.
Maintain a Safe Distance
The more space you can give an alligator, the better. You never want to make a gator feel crowded or threatened. They’re faster than they look, and while they try to avoid humans when at all possible, they will defend their young, nests, or mates with ferocity.
Do Not Feed an Alligator
Feeding alligators is never a good idea. Even if the alligator is satisfied with what you offer it (which is often not the case, as alligators eat quite a bit), it will present problems in the future. If alligators learn that they have sources of food that require little to no effort, they will abandon their natural resources and seek out humans.
What to Do if You Come Face-to-Face with an Alligator
Leave it Alone
If the animal gives you the opportunity to walk away from an uneventful interaction, take it. Do not provoke the alligator in any way, shape, or form. These animals don’t prefer altercations with humans, and humans shouldn’t prefer altercations with alligators. It’s safer for everybody if humans leave alligators alone.
Run Away in a Straight Line
If the alligator starts behaving aggressively, run away in a straight line, not a zig-zag. They may be fast, but only for short distances. It’s likely that you will be able to outlast the alligator and make it lose interest in the pursuit.
The only time you should fight an alligator is if it gets a hold of you. In that case, aim for its eyes, nose, or throat, which are its most sensitive areas. Hit, kick, or jab with as much strength as you can muster to try and force the gator to release its grip. You can also jab something like a stick in its mouth to try and trigger the animal’s gag reflex.
After alligators bite, they twist into what’s called the Death Roll to inflict greater injury. If the alligator has clamped down on your arm, you might try to grab the alligator with your other arm and roll with it. This will help minimize the injury until you’re able to take further action or help comes.
An alligator sometimes adjusts its grip on its prey by momentarily releasing its jaw. If/When it does this, that’s your moment to pull free and escape to seek medical help.
Having a Small Pet With You Makes an Alligator More Likely to Attack You
As stated before, small animals look like an alligator’s natural prey. Walking near water or swamps with your small pet comes with risks. Walking away from the water’s edge is better when you have your dog or other animal with you.