Anyone living in Florida for any length of time is likely to experience a run-in with a wild reptile or amphibian.
They're everywhere, from the stealthy lizards stalking insects in your garden to slippery green tree frogs that serenade you on rainy nights and gopher tortoises that amble along the roadside as you drive by.
These critters can evoke as much contempt as they do fascination. Snakes can either be friendly or life-threatening, depending on their species. But when it comes to alligators, the largest native reptile in Florida, fiction often overshadows fact.
In the wild, alligators are seen as passive loners that prefer to avoid human contact at all costs. But in an urban setting, that can change. A gator searching for food or protecting its young can quickly turn into a ferocious killer if the circumstances dictate.
Steve Stiegler, a noted alligator biologist with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says that educating people about living with alligators begins with getting them to swap fear for respect.
On Saturday, Stiegler will join a number of other wildlife experts for the Chinsegut Nature Center's annual Reptile and Amphibian Festival, a daylong event that will feature nature displays and exhibits, plus discussions, workshops and other nature-related activities.
Stiegler, who will bring with him a live reptile collection that includes alligators, a Florida crocodile and a South Florida cayman, said that up-close and personal encounters are perhaps the most effective way to demystify the public as to what exactly an alligator is.
What it is not, Stiegler said, is a thoughtless killing machine. Indeed, the vast majority of alligator attacks on humans are more a result of bad timing, where the creature views the person as a threat to its safety or welfare.
"There are so many factors to consider," Stiegler said. "Time of year, habitat change, or whether the animal was provoked in some way. When you live in a state that has growing populations of both people and alligators, you are naturally going to have more frequent encounters between them."
Since 1948, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has registered 489 alligator attacks on people, 22 of which have been fatal. Stiegler said that considering the estimated number of alligators that prowl Florida's wetlands, attacks on humans are still considered rare.
"The frequency (of human-alligator encounters) increases during warm weather or drought conditions when the creatures are more active," he said. "And if you're in an area where alligators are known to exist, my advice would be to pay attention to your surroundings."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.