Leave those alligators alone

Whenever I talk to elementary school students about alligators, I point out that these fearsome reptiles have a brain the size of a walnut.

Your average Florida gator, and I'm not talking about the football fan, isn't half as smart as a second-grader.

Still, every summer, we hear about alligator attacks, most of which could have been avoided if the victim had exercised a little common sense.

Take, for example, an incident July 12 in the Central Florida town of Sanford.

According the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Dirk Alan Willms, 44, spotted an alligator crossing a road and decided to grab its tail. The gator, which measured about 4 feet in length, whipped around and bit Willms, whom law enforcement officials said appeared to be intoxicated.

After chomping down on Willms' leg, the alligator scurried into some bushes. Willms, wounded but undeterred, pursued the reptile into the vegetation and was bitten again, this time on the hand.

Bloodied but not still beaten, Willms eventually subdued the beast and took it home. A passerby, however, took note of the shenanigans and reported the abduction to authorities, who arrived shortly thereafter and ticketed the gator-napper.

Willms of 501 Lemon St. was charged with possession of an alligator, a second-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. The state lists alligators as a species of special concern. They can be legally taken only by those with proper licenses and permits.

This gator, meanwhile, was released unharmed into nearby Lake Jesup. Willms, who received minor punctures and cuts, was told to seek medical attention, but it is unclear if he followed the investigating officer's advice.

Use your head

Florida has more than 1 million alligators and averages about seven alligator attacks a year.

Since 1948, when the state began keeping records, there have been 517 unpleasant alligator-human interactions. Some, like the previously mentioned case, are considered the human's fault.

The majority of the attacks, however, are classified as "unprovoked." But many of these incidents could have been avoided.

Alligators typically grab their prey in the water, or within a yard or two of the water's edge. In two-thirds of the attacks on humans, the victim never sees the gator coming. In most cases, the gator strikes from beneath the water.

Alligators are opportunistic feeders and eat just about anything — fish, turtles, raccoons, your dog, if you let it get too close to the water. Most alligator attacks occur in residential areas — canals, lakes, golf course ponds — where the reptiles have grown accustomed to seeing humans.

The best advice for someone who wants to avoid being added to the list of the 22 people who have been killed by alligators in the modern era, is to stay out of freshwater at dawn, dusk and at night, when gators are most active.

Act like an ape man

But if you do find yourself tangling with one of these living dinosaurs, think like Tarzan. After watching Johnny Weissmuller battle countless crocodiles, which are much meaner than alligators, it is obvious that the best strategy when under attack is to fight like you were raised in the jungle by a band of primates.

Don't worry, you won't make the alligator any madder. Remember, it is a dumb reptile looking for an easy meal. If you struggle, it might just release its grip.

Go for the most vulnerable part on the alligator's body: the snout. Kick, punch, scratch, yell and scream. If you can, gouge its eyes. Stay above the water, because if the beast gets you below the surface, you will end up part of the food chain.

Whatever you do, never grab an alligator by the tail, and for heaven's sake, don't take it home.

Times wires and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS

Alligator mississippiensis

Size: Females rarely exceed 9 feet, but males get much larger. The state record is 14 feet, 5/8 inches.

Range: From east Texas and southeast Oklahoma, as far north as North Carolina, and south to Florida.

Cold-blooded: Alligators are most active when the water temperature ranges between 82 and 92 degrees, such as the summer. If the water temperature drops below 70, they stop feeding. When the temperature hits 55 or below, gators hide in their dens and seldom move.

Leave those alligators alone 07/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 12:08am]

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