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EDITORIAL: Alligator policy needs to be adjusted

By Staff | Dec 29, 2010

It has been more than five years since the City of Sanibel last made changes to its nuisance alligator policy, which was adjusted in part due to a fatal attack in the summer of 2004.

On the surface, it appears that the policy is indeed working. Nobody on Sanibel has lost their life due to an alligator attack in the years since. However, during the same span, almost 300 alligators have been destroyed.

A few weeks ago, Barbara Joy Cooley, President of the Committee of the Islands, wrote in her guest commentary which appeared in the Island Reporter, “I’m not an alligator expert, but I think it is time for the experts to take a look at our harvest area designation to see if it is really needed. More study and examination of the data is needed.”

On Tuesday, Dee Serage-Century, SCCF’s Living With Wildlife Education Director, suggested that the city’s alligator policy may be too strict, and does not allow for these reptile to grow to maturity.

“People here talk about putting land aside for wildlife preservation, but nobody seems to care about learning how to live with wildlife better,” she said.

According to the city’s policy, “an aggressive alligator of any length will deemed a nuisance and will be captured for destruction.” That statement casts a rather wide net, and is largely subjective, in our opinion.

In addition, the policy calls for the destruction of large alligators located in residential and commercial areas, in high pedestrian traffic and public locations. Alligators that make residents feel “unsafe” are also to be destroyed, and “special consideration should be given to alligator complaints and their proximity to children.”

Again, who is the final authority that should determine if an alligator is truly a nuisance? The state trapper, who gets paid for capturing and killing alligators? The police, whose primary duty is to protect the citizens of Sanibel? Or members of the public, who may not want an alligator living in his or her back yard?

“Do we want an island without alligators?” Cooley asked in her commentary. “Not only one on which these creatures are no longer a part of our wildlife experience, but also one on which the natural balance has been dramatically altered?”

The island’s alligator population, according to most experts, has dropped dramatically over the past decade. Some attribute the dwindling numbers to natural causes, but a majority of experts say the city’s nuisance alligator policy is to blame. Removing all “unwanted” alligators over four feet long — at an age before they reach sexual maturity — may cause a once abundant species to slowly disappear from Sanibel altogether.

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.

We would like the city’s Department of Natural Resources to take a look at the current nuisance alligator policy. Bearing in mind the concerns for public safety, it would be prudent to request the relocation of gators up to six feet long, and the destruction of those larger deemed “dangerous” by state officials.

More than two-thirds of Sanibel is comprised of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and SCCF oversees critical wildlife habitat and more than 1,800 aces of land for conservation purposes. In total, the island possesses over 2,200 acres of freshwater wetlands. Relocation to these areas seems like a natural solution, although the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission points out that relocated alligators often try to return to their capture site.

However, when a mature crocodile from Charlotte County was relocated to the refuge in May, trappers placed magnets on the reptile’s head in order to disorient the animal’s instinctive “tracking” sense. The process, which did not do any harm to the creature, seems to have worked — six months later, she is still here.

The city would be doing a greater good if it increased public awareness regarding the illegal feeding of alligators. We again urge our readers not to 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.

To that end, we would like to see the Police Department impose fines greater than the current $500 penalty for people guilty of feeding alligators. When it impacts the wallet, people will pay attention.

Like most Sanibelians, we hope to ensure that these creatures will endure and thrive on the island just as they have for many years. And many more to come.

— Reporter editorial