Gator Danger: How Big is the Risk?

With a 9.5-foot gator recently pulled from a Westchase pond after taking a resident’s dog, what precautions should residents take?

The rule of thumb in Florida is where there is a body of fresh water there is an alligator.

Alligators can be found in all 67 counties throughout the state. In Westchase and the surrounding neighborhoods, they’ve been spotted swimming in our ponds, sunbathing on the side of the road, taking a stroll across the street and even making use of Westchase’s pedestrian tunnel that connects ponds on opposite sides of Linebaugh Avenue.

In most cases, gators that are on the move or that are basking on pond banks will simply move on to areas with fewer humans if they’re left alone. Yet, the number of nuisance alligators harvested each year is steadily on the rise. According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) data, the number of alligators either harvested or relocated jumped from 7,296 in 2014 to 8,929 in 2018—a 22 percent increase in five years.

Much of this has to do with the fact that as the human population in our state grows, interactions between people and alligators increase. Amateur video of massive gators strolling nonchalantly across neighborhood golf courses and horror stories of gator encounters, like the harrowing incident at Disney World’s Grand Floridian in 2017, add to the fear associated with alligators. The key is learning to live in harmony with these prehistoric creatures.

It is, of course, important to acknowledge that when coexisting with alligators the potential for conflict always exists; however, unprovoked alligator attacks are relatively rare. There have been a total of 413 people bitten in Florida since the FWC began keeping track in 1948. Twenty-five of those attacks were fatal. In 2019, two minor bites and zero fatalities were recorded.

And although alligator attacks are rare, this is the time of year when the reptiles are most active. There are a number of steps you can take to keep your children and pets safe during this active time of year.

Alligator Safety Tips

Alligators can be present in or near any fresh or brackish water in the state. Exercise caution when near lakes, ponds and canals and never let very young children wade in the water or play along lake/pond/river banks.

Do not swim outside of posted swimming areas or in waters that might be inhabited by large alligators.

Avoid swimming at night as alligators are most active between dusk and dawn.

Because they are the size of alligators’ typical prey, dogs and cats should not be allowed to swim, exercise or drink in or near water that may contain alligators. Alligators have attacked dogs playing on banks and in retention ponds within Westchase.

Never approach an alligator on land. If you’re bitten, seek medical attention immediately as alligator bites often become badly infected.

Never feed an alligator. Once it associates people with food and loses its fear of humans, an alligator will have to be removed and killed.

Leave alligators alone. State law prohibits killing, harassing or possessing alligators. Handling even small alligators can result in bites, scratches and other injuries.

Residents with concerns about an alligator may call FWC’s Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 1-866-FWC-GATOR (866-392-4286). Westchase residents can call the Westchase CDD (920-4268). Residents in Highland Park, Mandolin and Windsor Place can call the Park Place CDD (873-7300). Nuisance gators are defined as being at least four feet in length and a threat to people, pets or property. Nuisance gators cannot be relocated; they are simply killed by the trapper who sells the alligator’s meat and hide for compensation.

With a little common sense and caution, residents of all of our Northwest communities can continue to be awed by these fascinating creatures.

Alligator Fast Facts

Population: 1.3 million in Florida
Largest Florida Gator: 14’3.5” male from Lake Washington in Brevard County
Heaviest Florida Gator: 1,043 pound male from Orange Lake in Alachua County

  • Fully grown alligators average 10-15 feet in length; female alligators, however, rarely exceed nine feet.
  • It’s estimated alligators live 35-50 years in the wild. Some captive alligators have lived to over 70-years-old.
  • Alligators have prospered for 150 million years on earth, even surviving the dinosaur extinction 65 million years ago. In contrast, modern humans have only been around for 200,000 years.
  • Even though they’re classified as reptiles, alligators are more closely related to birds and more directly descended from dinosaurs.
  • Alligators don’t chase prey. They are ambush predators that prefer lurking in water until lunging at prey.
  • There is no documented evidence of gators running after people; they are far more likely to run away, back into the pond.
  • The myth that you should run in a zig-zag pattern to escape a gator has no basis in reality, nor do any claims that gators can run 35 miles per hour. It is estimated they can only run 8-9 miles per hour. If a gator does happen to chase you, run in a straight line. And be sure to document it.
  • It’s illegal to keep an alligator as a pet in Florida without a special permit.

By Chris Barrett and Karen Ring

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