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Size matters, especially for gators

By Staff | Aug 5, 2009

Last week, Sanibelians were given a somber reminder that we all live on a sanctuary island inhabited by creatures which date back to the prehistoric era, and that sometimes interaction between our species and theirs isn’t a pleasant mix.

When landscaper Lauri Olin was bitten on the hand by a six-foot-plus alligator on July 29, news of the incident appeared on local TV news reports and across the Internet within a few hours of the attack. And although her wounds were considered to be relatively minor, the attention-grabbing headlines seemed to trigger memories of past human/gator incidents on Sanibel.

In 2004, there were two attacks – one fatal – here. Prior to that, another incident which occurred on Sept. 11, 2001 resulted in a fatality. Care and caution should always be the rule when encountering an alligator.

First and foremost, we would like to see more people here on Sanibel take the time to do their part to live safely in cooperation with these prehistoric creatures:

Do not feed alligators. Although humans are not typically targeted as prey to gators, these animals are taught over time to consider humans as a food source.

Keep children and pets away from alligator habitats, including along the water’s edge at ponds, lakes, rivers and canals.

Don’t swim outside of posted swimming areas or in waters that might be inhabited by alligators (especially freshwater sources).

Observe alligators from a safe distance; approaching closer than 20 feet is considered risky.

Shortly after the last attack five years ago, the City of Sanibel established its Nuisance Alligator Program. The policy sets forth procedures for receiving alligator and crocodile complainants and handling nuisance alligators or crocodiles, as determined by the Sanibel Police Department.

“The primary factor in the evaluation is determining the potential danger posed by an alligator or crocodile,” the program’s Mission Statement reads, in part. “If the alligator is deemed a nuisance alligator, a state trapper will be contacted to remove the alligator. An alligator that is determined to be a non-nuisance alligator up to four feet in length will be relocated to conservation areas only.”

In the case of Olin’s attack, the policy is both right and appropriate. However, wildlife conservationists – of which there are many folks who consider themselves to be so here on Sanibel – have complained that the removal of non-nuisance alligators less than six feet in length may be doing harm to the island’s gator population.

According to reptile experts, alligators begin breeding between the ages of 8 and 13. On average, mature gators are approximately six to seven feet long by that stage of their lives. Thus, if state trappers are called in to eradicate non-nuisance alligators, the species may be in danger of sustaining itself within its established habitat.

“Remember, every alligator over four feet long reported to the police, if caught by the trapper is killed whether the gator is a threat to humans or just basking in the backyard sun,” warns the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Web site. “Let’s make sure we are only ‘harvesting’ the dangerous ones.”

We think that the City of Sanibel should not only reconsider its Nuisance Alligator Program’s policy, but they should consult with gator experts – including SCCF and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission – to ensure that these creatures can endure and thrive on the islands just as they have for thousands and thousands of years.

– Reporter editorial