Where Should the Wild Things Be?

September 28th, 2011 by Kim Tingley

Assessing the tenuous relationship between man and gator in Florida.

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In Palmetto, a 7-foot alligator crawls through a doggy door and greets a woman in her guest bedroom. Up in New Port Richey, a beagle barks at a 10-foot gator in the family pool. At the Gainesville Golf and Country Club, another 10-footer gnaws the front bumper of a police car. It’s a typical stretch of warm days in Florida. Energized by the heat, the official state reptile roams: courting and mating, laying eggs, exploring, and generally ignoring all boundaries between itself and its human neighbors. What is the value of preserving wildlife that, by its very definition, is unpredictable and potentially dangerous? Their exploits beg the question.

Florida has long wrestled with its strange, dual responsibility: to protect its human residents while preserving a native ecological treasure with prehistoric teeth and a hunger to match. Life-and-death conflicts between alligators and residents span the history of the state. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, pioneering settlers and tourists in the rambunctious wetland that was Florida massacred the enormous alligators by the millions, for sport and commerce. By the time Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966, the reptiles had declined so steeply that they made the Secretary of the Interior’s inaugural list of fauna “threatened with extinction.”

Yet even as Florida drained its swamps, air-conditioned its heat, and bulldozed the habitats of fragile native species, the alligator rebounded. The hardy reptiles simply moved into residential ponds and golf course water traps, easily coexisting side-by-side with people. And as their numbers grew, so did their encounters with their human neighbors. When an alligator killed a person – a teenage girl swimming in Oscar Scherer State Park – in August of 1973, it became the first to do so since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began keeping records circa 1948.

By 1978, so many people were calling the Commission with alligator fears that the agency instituted a Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program (SNAP) to address them. Residents could phone a complaint to their local office and, if the alligator in question was more than 4-feet long, a trapper would come capture it. The trappers don’t earn a regular salary; instead, they are allowed to sell the animals’ meat and hide. The program received a total of 4,627 calls in its first four years. By 2000, it was receiving some 15,000 per year and required a dedicated hotline. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., 365 days a year, a rotating crew of seven operators and one supervisor mans the phones – 1-866-FWC-GATOR – from the headquarters of a doublewide trailer in Okeechobee.

Alligators smaller than 9-feet long rarely pose a real threat to humans, says Lindsey Hord, SNAP’s program coordinator. Judging from the phone calls to the hotline, the average gator size that humans find intolerable is 7 feet. Many of the complaints that SNAP operators field are like the one Brenna Whipple was logging at 9:55 a.m. on the last Friday in May: “Gator is in pond behind house,” she typed; the complainant “fears for her small children.” But the creature in question was only three feet long. Its torso was roughly the size of a Subway sandwich; its head, from nostrils to eyeballs, was shorter than a credit card. Whipple said: “Sometimes, because of fear, people are unreasonable and not rational in their thought process.” 

Still, those same people are taxpayers, with the power to decide what kind of “nature” they want to live with: palm-lined golf courses and fountain-blooming lakes, or untouched scrub and authentic toothsome predators. SNAP’s true objective, which Hord concedes is “not a realistic objective,” is to eventually educate all Floridians so that they don’t need a hotline to help them peacefully coexist with the reptiles. “But you have to provide a remedy to deal with problem alligators,” Hord says. “If we didn’t, negative sentiment would be greater. That’s a balance we try to strike for the good of the alligator population.”

When the balance shifts, it seems both sides lose. In 2004, an alligator more than 12-feet long killed a landscaper on Sanibel Island, on Florida’s southwest coast. The victim was crouched and facing away from a backyard pond when the creature lunged from the water, snatched her in its jaws, and dragged her in. A subsequent analysis of the alligator’s stomach found only duck feathers and vegetation – it had been hungry and hunting. The island is famous for its environmental consciousness; letters and opinions in the local paper blamed city officials for favoring animals over people: “Why do leaders and environmentalists of Sanibel Island think they have to live in Jurassic Park?” wrote one commentator. Another: “Isn’t it time that we put our priorities in order? Human life or alligators?” A year after the incident, islanders had summoned trappers to destroy 96 of Sanibel’s roughly 300 alligators – far above the average annual take of eight.

Florida, not the West, may have been America’s last frontier. Today people mostly have the place under control, except for the occasional hurricane – and the alligators. But if we could keep them from harming us ever again, would we have won? At 4:34 p.m., at a service center in Lutz, a gator beneath a car stops an employee from departing at the end of her shift. The standoff won’t last long, but for as long as it lasts, a proxy for nature defies our will – our surroundings are vast, their mysteries unfathomable – until we take hold of its tail, tape its jaws shut, and continue on our way home.

Kim Tingley writes the Species Watch column for OnEarth.org and is a contributing writer for The Week magazine. She lives in New York City.