Gators have taste for Florida Man, according to science

An alligator lays in shallow water at the western edge of Lake Maggiore, St. Petersburg, Wednesday, July 31, 2019.  Florida has compiled data on alligator bites.  SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
An alligator lays in shallow water at the western edge of Lake Maggiore, St. Petersburg, Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Florida has compiled data on alligator bites. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Aug. 1, 2019

A lot of Florida stories are gator stories — gators tossed into a fast-food restaurant, or turning up in someone's bathtub, or crashing through a kitchen window. And, of course, there are the stories about people being chomped on by Florida's official state reptile.

Back when alligators were on the endangered list, nobody ever reported being bitten by one. They weren't common enough. But once their population began to rebound, the number of reported bites began to climb.

A new study looking at Florida alligator bite reports dating back to 1971 concludes that gators mostly bite adult men who are not tourists. Adult men in this category make the mistake of getting too close — or even getting into — small, man-made bodies of water where the prehistoric lizards like to hang out, generally in the summertime.

"Major injuries to victims occurred in 247 bite incidents," the study reported. "The estimated annual number of bites resulting in major injury to the victim increased from 3.5 to 7.0 during 1971–2014." Twenty-two bites were fatal, the report noted.

The study, written by state biologists and published this week in the Journal of Wildlife Management, reported that about three-quarters of the bites were by male gators, most of them going after what they thought was food. They found "only one instance in which a bite was associated with defense of eggs or young by an adult female alligator."

That part of the report "was pretty surprising to me," said Adam Rosenblatt, an alligator expert who is a biology professor at the University of North Florida. He hailed the study as the largest and most comprehensive survey of bite reports ever done in the United States.

There's a good reason for that distinction, explained state biologist Allan Woodward, one of the study's authors: "Florida has over 90 percent of all the bites in the United States."

And Woodward said that despite lore about female gators fiercely defending their nests, "they hiss and do bluff charges and give intruders enough time to get away. If you hold your ground she will bite, but most people won't hold their ground."

Woodward retired from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2014 but continues working for the agency on a contract basis. He said the study resulted from him finally having the time analyze the hundreds of bite reports that the commission had collected over the past 40 years.

He said one thing that surprised him was that "42 percent of the reported bites occurred in unnamed water bodies — canals, retention ponds, that kind of thing, that are interwoven into residential and urban areas. They're places where people don't expect to see alligators, and where alligators are used to seeing people and so lose their wariness of them."

Less surprising was that one third of the bites were connected to people feeding alligators, so that the gators began to associate people with food. For instance, in 2012, an Everglades airboat tour captain who lured gators close to his boat by feeding them marshmallows, discovered that gators tend to bite the hand that feeds them. He lost his.

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As a Times story on the incident noted, "You get mugged in Manhattan. You lose your loot in Vegas. In Florida, the foolish and unlucky wear empty sleeves."

The study didn't include that specific case, said Woodward, because it excluded instances where the gator was clearly provoked into chomping down on a human appendage and "we considered that a provided attack." Instead they looked at cases where someone else feeding gators led to the animals chowing down on someone who just happened along later.

Males were more frequently bitten than females, and by a large margin: 81.4 percent to 18.5 percent, In other countries, the number of women bitten by crocodilian creatures is much higher, Rosenblatt said, mostly because women tend to be the ones washing clothes or bathing children by the reptile-inhabited river.

Sometimes the surprising part is not that the bite occurred but that it didn't happen sooner. For instance, in 2017 a man whose job since 1988 involved diving in golf course water hazards all over the state to collect golf balls for resale encountered a gator at the Rotonda Golf and Country Club near Englewood. The gator nearly tore his arm off.

Thirty of the bite reports came from people who encountered gators on golf courses, Woodward said. That included one golf-ball diver who was bitten four times over 15 years, he said.

Those bites were all minor, he said. Those tend to be "a single bite and release, indicating it was for defense, or that the gator was unsure about what its prey was."

Florida officials implemented what they called a Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program — SNAP for short — in 1978 to catch gators that appeared to pose a threat or had bitten someone. But of course in some cases the gator wasn't actually at fault because the victim was impaired before being bitten.

The study found that victims had been imbibing alcohol in only 12 percent of the major bite cases, but noted that in many instances the investigation took place hours after the bite had occurred and alcohol use might not have been obvious to investigators.

If you want to avoid being bitten, stay out of the water, and if you're in the water and you see a gator, get out. Not once, Woodward noted, did they find anyone had been bitten by an alligator that had pursued them across dry land.

"They will surge up out of the water to the full length of their body," he said. But that's as far as they go. And while they have been known to climb fences, those tend to be smaller gators, he said.

The bottom line, he said, is that people in Florida need to be aware that alligators are no longer endangered. They're all around, in just about any body of water larger than a mud puddle. And the easiest way to avoid being bitten is to stay out of their way.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.