Are Lowcountry alligators dangerous? Everything you need to know
BY MICHAEL OLINGER
If you live in the Lowountry, you’ve certainly seen alligators. They may frighten or fascinate you, but they’re a fact of life. Here’s some things everyone should know about their toothy reptilian neighbors.
A recent story of a 10-year-old girl who was bitten by an alligator in Florida makes a lot of us uneasy about the Lowcountry critter.
But don’t be too concerned.
According to the CDC, 10 people between 1999 and 2015 were killed by alligators and alligators nationwide.
By comparison, the CDC reports that 922 people died nationwide in falls involving beds in 2015 alone.
In South Carolina, there has only been one recorded death in the last 41 years, and it remains unclear what role alligators played in it, according to SCDNR.
Nonfatal alligator attacks have also been rare in the state.
“Since 1976 there have only been 20 incidents that we’re aware of,” said Jay Butfiloski, certified wildlife biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, there were just nine reported alligator attacks from 1949 to 2005 in South Carolina, compared to 391 in Florida.
There were 38 shark attacks in the Palmetto State, while there were 501 shark attacks in Florida during the same time period, the Florida Museum of Natural history reports.
From 1949 to 2005, 17 people were killed in Florida from alligator bites and one person was killed in Georgia. According to data from the Florida Museum of Natural History, only 4.3 percent of recorded alligator attacks were fatal.
WHAT PROVOKES AN ALLIGATOR ATTACK?
There’s one specific, underlying reason why gator attacks are so rare. You have to behave pretty irresponsibly to provoke an attack, according to wildlife experts.
According to DNR wildlife biologist Dean Harrigal, actions that have led to attacks include people swimming in lakes clearly marked as having alligators and attempting to retrieve golf balls from within 2 feet of a gator’s snout.
People have also provoked gators by poking them with sticks. Feeding alligators can lead them to eventually attack. It is never a good idea, as it makes them more comfortable approaching humans and trains them to think of us as a food source.
This is ultimately bad for the gator, since once it tries to attack, it is removed.
“A fed gator is a dead gator,” said Joe Maffo, owner of Critter Management in Hilton Head Island.
Alligators are generally afraid of people and, if not fed, will beat a hasty retreat if one is near. If you hear an alligator hissing, that is an indicator that they may be about to attack. As a rule of thumb, give them a wide berth. Leave them be, and they will return the favor.
DO ALLIGATORS CHASE PEOPLE?
Those harboring fears of running from a charging alligator can ease their minds, according to Harrigal, who says that the most an alligator might do in pursuit of a human is lunge.
“They’re not going to chase you 40 yards across a field,” said Harrigal. “I’ve heard tell of them coming up the bank a short distance after something, but they’re not going to run after you.”
Alligators tend to lunge at things they associate with prey, so small dogs can invite interest. They will also lunge at people to protect their nests and young. But their behavior isn’t always predictable.
“Sometimes they’re just having a bad day,” said Harrigal.
HOW MANY ALLIGATORS ARE REMOVED FROM BEAUFORT COUNTY EACH YEAR?
Many spook easily at the sight of a gator, but instances of them posing a threat are rare.
“We get lots of calls to come out and investigate each year,” said Maffo, “but we don’t remove very many.”
Butfiloski puts the number of recorded alligators removals in Beaufort County in 2016 at seven.
Alligators are most visible throughout the Lowcountry in the months of May and June. It is warm enough for them to move around without being so hot that they need to retreat to water. These months are also gator mating season.
“He’s looking for a girlfriend,” Moffo said of male gators, “and if your yard or your home is in his path he’s going to use it. He’s going straight, the best he can, to get from point A to point B. He doesn’t know he can go around corners.”
ARE ALLIGATORS A DANGER TO YOUR PETS?
Harrigal recommends against letting Lowcountry pets play near water.
“Anything that splashes in or goes near the water is potential prey for an alligator, because that’s where they feed,” said Harrigal. “A raccoon-sized dog to a gator isn’t a raccoon-sized dog, it’s raccoon-sized prey.”
If a pet is attacked or killed by an alligator, DNR will send an agent out to remove it, as long as they can be sure they are removing the gator responsible.
“If someone says, ‘there is an alligator in the Cooper River that attacked my dog’ we’re probably not going to send an agent,” said Butfiloski. “There’s plenty of alligators in the Cooper River and unless you happened to be right there and watching it you just can’t tell.”
As a rule of thumb, with pets as with people, Harri-gal recommends treating alligators the same way you treat a car.
“You have no idea what the driver is doing, so you act defensively.”