Be wary and safe during alligators’ active season, FWC advises

OKEECHOBEE — A funny video showed up on Facebook recently, by Daniel McNamara via Storyful, that shows a resting alligator, awakened by an errant golf drive, then devouring said ball and slinking off into the water hazard.

So far they haven’t been trained to fetch by Florida golf course owners, but a local trapper tells the story of how human activity can condition them to become nuisances.

You’ll usually find FWC licensed nuisance-alligator trapper Allen Register feeding the specimens at Gatorama, or giving a lecture for visitors. Special to Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Gatorama.

Alligators become more active and visible in populated areas at this time of year because their mating season is under way, so the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) wants Floridians to be cognizant of how best to stay safe around them, what measures people can take to keep alligators at a safe distance and what to do if someone feels threatened by a gator.

Although they were removed from the endangered species list decades ago, alligators still are a protected species because of their resemblance to the endangered American crocodile. Under Florida law, it is illegal to feed, kill, harass or possess alligators without a farming or hunting license.

All residents and visitors are advised to be aware that as a fundamental part of Florida’s natural landscapes, ecosystems and food chains, alligators are found in all 67 counties, especially in and near freshwater or brackish water bodies. So it is important to always be watchful when engaging in outdoor recreation nearby or in the water, even, possibly, in one’s own back yard. And because gators are most active between dusk and dawn, swimming at night in inland water bodies is to be avoided.

Clean up the scraps while fishing

Fishermen especially are asked to be proactive in not providing artificial food sources or attractions for alligators. The FWC advises disposing of all fish scraps in garbage cans at boat ramps and fish camps; never throw them in the water. People are asked to observe and photograph alligators only from a distance.

Alligators under 4 feet long generally are not big enough to be dangerous to people unless handled. But male alligators 7 feet or longer, and females 6 feet or longer, most likely are sexually mature. Mating season occurs during May and June, and the animals are more active outside their usual ranges and are apt to act more aggressively during these months.

In any case, people are advised never to swim outside of posted swimming areas or in any waters where large alligators might be present. Also, people who own pets must remember that dogs and cats are close in size to alligators’ natural prey, so they should not allow their pets to swim, exercise or drink in or near water bodies that might harbor gators. Attacks on humans are extremely rare but still possible, so always be wary if one is sighted, and leave it alone.

Alligators may be seen anywhere near ponds, canals, ditches, streams, pools and golf-course waterholes. Often they may just be sunning themselves or moving between wetland areas, but if anyone observes an alligator that is believed to pose a threat to humans, pets or property, they are encouraged to call the FWC’s Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program (SNAP) at 866-392-4286.

The program’s goal is to reduce the threat from alligators to people and their property in developed areas, while conserving alligators in areas where they naturally occur. In 2017, SNAP received 13,210 nuisance alligator complaints, resulting in the removal of 8,455 nuisance alligators. The number of calls was about 3,000 fewer in 2016, but the number of animals harvested was up from 8,036 that year. Overall, the recent number of calls is below the 2012-16 average of 15,124 calls but harvests are up substantially over that four-year average of 7,379.

This program permits the removal of alligators that pose a threat to people, pets, livestock, or property. It is illegal for members of the general public to kill, capture or relocate nuisance alligators. For more information about nuisance alligators, visit http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/man.

Local trapper has been keeping busy

Local FWC-licensed nuisance-gator trapper Allen Register, who also is co-owner with wife Patty of the Gatorama attraction in Glades County, said on Saturday, May 19, that he’s been somewhat busier lately than usual at this time.

A sign on trapper Allen Register’s vehicle identifies him as licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Often, he joked, he thinks he should “send up a flare” when he arrives at a call because he goes right to work and nervous residents might not see him right away. Okeechobee News/Chris Felker

“It’s the breeding season so they’re out moving around. I’ve got five open permits right now,” he said. Five different people had called FWC in his area, reporting nuisance alligators, but some of them were reporting multiple gators.

Mr. Register, who’s been working for FWC as a trapper for about seven years, is assigned the territory between the Caloosahatchee River and Fisheating Creek.

“There’s high trapping traffic right now, because alligators are breeding so they’re on the roads and they’re in people’s ponds,” said Mrs. Register. She added that the alligators he traps are not killed. “We bring them back here (to Gatorama in Glades County) and, depending on their size, we either put them in the breeding area as new bloodlines, or we put them in this barebacking opportunity for a little bit.” That’s a new photo-op available to Gatorama visitors where they can be photographed as though they were riding an alligator.

Sometimes people report alligators that are too young to be a nuisance; Mr. Register said a woman in Moore Haven had reported several, but they were only 2-3 feet.

“A nuisance alligator is deemed as one 4 feet and above, but we as the trapper industry or group have said that we’ll go get those alligators to keep the complainant happy, and we’ll relocate them … to another body of water. The nuisance trapping never ends; it goes on year-round,” Mr. Register explained.

“The state has to respond because of public safety, and so that’s why they call the trappers.

But some are not, in my opinion,” he added.

Asked when it’s necessary to report an alligator one might encounter as a “nuisance,” he replied:

“I think when a person feels threatened — but there’s different thresholds for that — I have a lady who’s lived in the same house since 1977, and she said they’re worse this year than they’ve ever been. Her house is up on stilts, and it was underneath her house or in her carport. That’s certainly an incident where we need to take care of the alligator.

“But,” he added, “there becomes a heightened awareness when there’s an injury or death from an alligator and people start to freak out. We had that happen in Moore Haven several years ago when a boy got his arm bitten off, so it’s a frenzy now. Generally what happens is, if an alligator’s up on your property closer to your house than to the water, that’s a good indication that it could be a problem alligator.”

That can be because the animal’s lost his fear of people, said Mrs. Register.

“If people start to feed them, then they lose that fear. It only takes one or two times to feed an alligator before that gator … I mean, they’re smart,” Mr. Register continued. “We’ve trained some of these alligators here … you see that triangle hanging from the tree over there (on a bank along Gatorama’s alligator pond); if we go there and ring that triangle, then whomp, they all go over there, and then we can call them one by one back over here and then we’ll feed them, stop them, have them walk around the trees and come back. It doesn’t take but just a few incidents, or a few times of them doing that, and they understand what’s going on.

“They easily get conditioned to know when there’s food present or nearby and when there’s not. They have a natural fear of people, they just lose that fear whenever people start to feed them.”

Mr. Register even thinks the alligators might be smart enough to modify their behavior based on trappers’ routine.

“The gators know … there’s this one in Moore Haven that we’ve been chasing for about three weeks, and he’s just in a canal system; there’s … four different things with culverts going through. You put out the bait, and he’s not even close by. And then you’ve got to think about how long he is because you don’t want to put it too low; then other animals would get it. You don’t want to get the four-footers if you’re after an eight-footer.”
Alligator harvest program

The first application period for 2018 Statewide Alligator Harvest Permits ran from May 18 through May 28. Participants had to either complete an online harvest report form or mail in a hard copy form; but if they transfer their alligator carcass to a commercial processor, then they must also print out a copy of the form and submit it with the carcass.

There’s also a Private Lands Alligator Harvest Program with similar reporting requirements, except that participants also must verify alligator habitat and population data using certified wildlife biologists.

Male alligators 7 feet or longer, and females 6 feet or longer, most likely are sexually mature, and mating occurs in May and June. Females build a mound nest of soil, vegetation and debris and lay 32 to 46 eggs in late June or early July. Hatching occurs from mid-August through early September. The hunting seasons, or harvest periods as they’re called, start in mid-August and run through early September, and then again from mid-September through Nov. 1; however, the hunt dates vary by county and even is limited to weekends in some “harvest units.” Check myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/alligator/harvest for more information.

Now it’s time for our quiz. What are the basic rules for coexisting peacefully with Florida’s alligators?

Never feed them; keep pets away from water’s edge; swim during the day and only in designated areas; and keep your distance if you see an alligator.

If an alligator is on your property and causing concern, call the FWC’s toll-free nuisance alligator hotline at 866-FWC-GATOR (392-4286).

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