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Small Alligators Not A Problem

South Carolina - Most alligator complaints involve animals too small to present a threat to people or pets, according to an alligator biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

"For many out-of-state visitors and some native South Carolinians, an alligator is an alligator, and they are all viewed as a potential threat to children and dogs," said Walt Rhodes, Alligator Project supervisor with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) based at Santee Coastal Reserve in McClellanville. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Of the more than 750 alligator complaints investigated by the DNR each season, more than half involve small alligators less than 5 feet in length, according to Rhodes. Alligators of this size feed on crawfish, aquatic insects, small snakes, frogs and turtles. The average body weight of alligators 3 feet in length is not quite 4 pounds. Four-foot alligators average about 11 pounds, while gators measuring 5 feet average only about 22 pounds. Children and dogs that exceed these body weights by a factor of several times are not in danger.

"These small alligators still merit respect as they have about 80 sharp teeth and may bite if threatened," Rhodes said. "Of course, these interesting animals also deserve respect in that all of our native animals have a role in South Carolina's ecosystems."

During the last 30 years, DNR biologists have conducted extensive research on alligators. Several thousand have been live-captured, measured, weighed, marked and released. These efforts have provided valuable insight into their habitat requirements, reproduction and nesting success, movements, growth rates, and other aspects of alligator biology and natural history.

Conservation officers and biologists with the DNR urge the public to be especially cautious around large alligators. While typically shy and inclined to avoid confrontations with people, large alligators deserve respect and people should maintain a safe distance from them.

Alligators longer than 9 feet are almost always males. A 10-foot alligator weighs about 270 pounds, and one 11 feet in length will tip the scales at 400 pounds. Twelve-foot alligators are rare, but these huge individuals will weigh about 475 to 525 pounds. These large, powerful animals are superbly adapted to their environment, according to Rhodes.

Common sense is essential, Rhodes advised. People should not swim or allow pets to swim in waters inhabited by large alligators. Unsupervised children and dogs in these situations pose an invitation to disaster, especially around dawn and dusk and after dark when alligators are most active.

An alligator kills someone about every five to 10 years, usually in Florida. Victims are typically children swimming or wading without supervision in areas inhabited by large alligators. The attacking alligator is usually one of 11 or 12 feet in length. Often these tragic incidents involve an alligator habituated to humans by hand feeding. For this reason, hand-feeding alligators is illegal in Florida and in South Carolina.

"While some people are entertained and amused by feeding scraps to alligators, they need to realize that besides putting humans at risk, this literally puts a death sentence on the animal," Rhodes said. "Eight alligator attacks have been recorded in South Carolina during the last 30 years, fortunately none of them fatal. More than half were provoked, so attempting to catch one is asking for trouble, not to mention illegal. Only DNR-permitted trappers may catch alligators, and this is only for animals needing removal.

"Perhaps more myths and outright nonsense have been repeated about alligators than all other species combined," Rhodes said. "Alligators do not overturn boats nor do they snatch people out of them. They do not knock people into the air with their tails and then catch hapless victims in midair. Alligators cannot run as fast as horses, and they do not chase people by galloping across yards and fairways."

"The widespread belief that you have to run a zigzag pattern to escape from an alligator is preposterous," said Rhodes. "While handling thousands of alligators, none of us have ever been chased. Because alligators are mysterious and secretive creatures of a mostly underwater domain, facts about their nature and habits are often distorted and grossly exaggerated."

While some people regard alligators as a nuisance, DNR biologists and conservation officers view them as a valuable resource. Rhodes urges that "all of our citizens should understand, appreciate, and respect the plants and animals with which we share the earth. Here in South Carolina, these elements combine to provide one of the richest and most diverse environments anywhere." When the DNR receives a call from the public regarding an alligator complaint, the information is used to place the situation in one of three categories: emergency, nuisance or no action.

An emergency is typically defined as an alligator out of and away from water or in an area where they are not normally found, such as under a vehicle, in a swimming pool, lying in a roadway or parking lot, or on a public beach.

A nuisance situation is one where the alligator is found in alligator habitat, such as a pond, marsh, or river, is greater than six feet and has potential to cause a threat to nearby humans or pets. Contract agents are dispatched to handle these nuisance situations.

For "no action" situations involving gators less than six feet and located in gator habitat, it is the DNR's responsibility to provide a conservation message to the complainant. These animals typically represent no threat to humans or pets and will not negatively impact the ecology of the system where they are found. Basic feeding habits and biological information are provided to the caller.

Citizens having questions and concerns about alligators may call the DNR radio room in Columbia 24 hours a day at 1-800-922-5431.


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