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Thousands of Florida’s ‘nuisance’ alligators are killed each year. Is it necessary?

More than 184,000 gators in Florida have been killed since 1997, according to Florida wildlife officials. But the bar needed to kill them is low.
Alligator trappers remove an alligator from the Hillsborough River at Water Works Park in Tampa in November.
Alligator trappers remove an alligator from the Hillsborough River at Water Works Park in Tampa in November. [ Courtesy of Phil Walters ]
Published Nov. 25, 2022|Updated Dec. 8, 2022

In October, just after Hurricane Ian, a 7-foot-9-inch alligator washed up on the Anna Maria Island shore. It was considered a “nuisance” alligator. According to state guidelines, a nuisance alligator is defined to be at least 4 feet long and considered a threat to people, pets or property.

This alligator’s leg had a minor injury, but it was euthanized. People on social media asked why the gator was killed and not treated or moved. It’s a question trappers often receive: Why kill and not relocate?

Killing a nuisance alligator is better than relocating it, biologists say — and killing an alligator in Florida is easy. Nearly 80% of alligator complaints result in permits being issued, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data.

But some Floridians worry that alligator newbies are calling the state’s nuisance hotline unnecessarily. Some call just for seeing an alligator at a lake, according to Elise Bennett, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We all want to live on the water, and roughly any body of water in the state of Florida is likely to have an alligator in it,” said Tim Geist, an alligator trapper in Hillsborough County

Once an alligator is trapped, it becomes the property of the trapper, wildlife commission spokesperson Tammy Sapp said. If a trapper catches an alligator smaller than 4 feet, they have to release it. If it is larger, the trapper can either kill the gator or sell it to an alligator farm, animal exhibit or zoo, Sapp said.

But marketplace dynamics can be cruel. Nearly 200,000 so-called nuisance alligators have been killed from 1997-2021, according to the wildlife commission. That’s about 57% of all permits issued by the state to trap alligators.

Tim Geist, an alligator trapper in Hillsborough County, poses with an alligator he caught. Every caught nuisance alligator in Florida larger than 4 feet is euthanized unless purchased by a zoo, alligator farm or aquarium.
Tim Geist, an alligator trapper in Hillsborough County, poses with an alligator he caught. Every caught nuisance alligator in Florida larger than 4 feet is euthanized unless purchased by a zoo, alligator farm or aquarium. [ Tim Geist ]

While trappers can sell to zoos or farms, they mostly don’t.

Chris Massaro, senior vice president of zoological operations at ZooTampa, said he could not think of a time when ZooTampa had gotten an alligator from a nuisance trapper. Meanwhile, farms grow alligators in a controlled environment. This produces hides that are less likely to have marks or cuts, and more likely to fetch a higher price from tanneries that buy the hides from the farms, said Christy Plott, co-owner of American Tanning & Leather.

That leaves one main option for trappers looking to sell: meat processors.

Shirl Floyd, the office manager at M&D Gator Products, which processes gator meat, said the majority of the meat the company buys comes from nuisance alligator trappers. Unlike farm alligators, which are smaller, nuisance alligators pack more meat.

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Often, people on social media ask why an alligator was killed when it doesn’t seem to pose a significant danger. Bennett suggested residents need to tolerate the alligators they observe — not call trappers on them.

“It feels like part of my duty to coexist,” Bennett said.

In the late 1980s, alligators were taken off Florida’s list of legally protected species. After decades of unregulated hunting, protections allowed the alligator population to return to safe levels, said Steven Johnson, a wildlife and ecology professor at the University of Florida.

Now, around 40 years later, Johnson said the alligator population remains at a safe level where “nuisance” killings don’t have any impact on the overall population in Florida. Sapp said there are an estimated 1.3 million alligators in Florida, and they are found in all 67 counties.

“A male alligator will have a territory, and if you go moving another male in there that can cause a problem,” Johnson said. An alligator accustomed to living near people who may have fed it illegally may not be equipped to handle a new environment, he said.

Geist said it’s possible that relocating an alligator may lead to it being killed by the native alligators in the new location.

Johnson said he believes killing alligators has been an effective tactic. Florida’s nuisance alligator website states relocated alligators are likely to return to their capture site — and they’re harder to catch a second time.

Relocating alligators can come at a cost to trappers, who are paid $30 by the wildlife commission’s program for each capture. Phil Walters, a trapper contracted with the wildlife commission, said it’s typical to catch only about a third of the alligators they get complaints on. Florida’s alligator nuisance program does not pay the trappers for traveling to a site or for traveling to relocate an alligator.

Generally, alligator trapping is a side venture. Walters worked in sales. Geist is a licensed insurance agent. The only way to make significant money as a trapper is by killing the alligator.

Floyd said M&D Gator Products pays $7 per foot for 7-foot alligators and $10 per foot for anything longer.

Phil Walters, an alligator trapper in Hillsborough County, sells the skins from the alligators he catches. He travels across the country to sell the leather.
Phil Walters, an alligator trapper in Hillsborough County, sells the skins from the alligators he catches. He travels across the country to sell the leather. [ Phil Walters ]

At times, being an alligator trapper also means being a teacher to the public in Florida. Gators are part of life here, and, Walters said, sometimes that means trappers serve as “psychologists” to Floridians learning to live with the state’s most famous reptile.

But he said it can be difficult to strike a balance between wanting to educate people about alligators in Florida and a desire to make money.