You are most likely to encounter alligators:
1) when they are basking beside water bodies
2) if you approach a female alligator or her babies
3) while conducting recreational activities (e.g., swimming, canoeing, fishing) in waterways with alligators
4) when they are crossing the road
5) if they have been fed and have become habituated to humans.
Being safe around alligators is straightforward. Concerns about having negative encounters with alligators can largely be dissolved with common sense and an understanding of alligator behavior. To put in the risk of alligator attack context, you are more likely to get struck by lightning or win the lottery than you are to be seriously injured by an alligator. In South Carolina only 11 alligator bites have been recorded since 1948, none of which resulted in fatalities. Just think of all the people, pets, and children that coexist with alligators every day with no incident. Still, alligators are large carnivorous predators that demand respect. Enjoy encountering them in the wild, and you can feel safe by taking into account the following:
- Don't feed alligators. This is a most important rule as feeding alligators threatens the safety of both people and animals. Providing food for these wild animals (that are naturally afraid of humans) not only makes them bolder and encourages them to seek out people, it also alters their natural diet in an unhealthy way. Do not feed ducks, turtles or any other animals inhabiting waters with alligators. This food source attracts the alligators as well and trains them to associate humans with foods. Lastly, do not clean fish in the water or leave your scraps or bait on the ground as that is also a potential food source for alligators. Feeding alligators is punishable by law with fines up to $150 and up to 30 days in jail.
- Keep your distance. Although they may look slow and awkward, alligators are extremely powerful and can move with a startling burst of speed on land over short distances. The myth of running in a zig-zag pattern to escape a chasing alligator is unnecessary as alligators tire quickly and run in a straight line themselves. It is highly unlikely to be chased by an alligator but as a precaution, a safe distance from an adult alligator should be maintained at about 60 feet. If the alligator hisses or lunges at you, you are too close.
- Do not attempt to move alligators out of the road. If you see an alligator on the move, leave it alone and let it pass on through. Alligators move the most in spring and summer when they are breeding.
- It is illegal to harass or throw things at alligators. They are living organisms that warrant respect and it is not productive to annoy them. Molesting, injuring or killing alligators is punishable by law with fines up to $2500 and 30 days in jail.
- Never disturb nests or small alligators. Some female alligators protect their young and may become aggressive if provoked. Although baby alligators are docile, they should never be captured, even if the mother is not visible. She may be watching you and decide to take action to protect her baby. Mother alligators will sometime react by hissing, lunging, or swimming toward you but are just signaling you to go away.
- Do not attempt to keep alligators as pets. Keeping a baby alligator as a pet is a foolish idea not to mention illegal in some states. Although they start out cute and small, they grow into the large predator that you observe outdoors.
- Keep your pets and children away from alligators. Large alligators do not recognize the difference between domestic pets and wild food sources. When they are hungry, alligators act on their hunting instinct and might attempt to feed on your house pet if given the opportunity. Keep your dogs on leashes around alligators. Do not allow your dogs or children to swim in waters inhabited by alligators, or to drink or play at the water’s edge. To an alligator, a splash potentially means a food source is in the water.
- It is best to avoid swimming in areas that are known habitats for large alligators but at the least, never swim alone. Always be careful around water. Splashing can attract alligators that think a prey animal is injured. They may act on instinct and attack. Or, a protective female may believe her young or eggs are threatened and take defensive action. Be cautious when fishing in waters with alligators, as some will not hesitate to grab a hooked fish or eat the fish on a stringer. Avoid heavy vegetation in and near the water’s edge as alligators use these areas to bask or ambush prey.
- Do not corner alligators if participating in recreational activities, such as skiing, canoeing, kayaking, or even taking photographs. These behaviors can make them feel threatened, causing them to react defensively. Do not panic if an alligator slips off the bank into the water. It is highly unlikely that it is coming to attack you; it is simply trying to move to another location where it feels safer.
Hatchling reared at SREL
ADVICE TO REMEMBER
"Alligators are fascinating creatures and should by all means be enjoyed as part of the natural beauty of our region. But please remember that they are wild animals and should be respected as such. Once they become too familiar with people, they lose their fear of humans, necessitating their removal from the area for the safety of everyone concerned. A few precautions on our part can help both humans and alligators co-exist safely."
--Dr. J. Whitfield Gibbons, SREL – Director of Outreach