Why did the alligator cross the road?

It’s beginning to dawn on me that I’m not as frightened of alligators as perhaps I should be.  It’s funny to me that with all the talk of fear and anxiety in this space, I’m feeling called to explain why this large reptilian predator doesn’t scare me.

So here’s the first reason: Alligators are not saltwater crocodiles or Nile crocodiles. The temperament of the alligator is not even comparable to its crocodilian cousins. Indeed, a saltwater croc makes our homegrown Alligator mississipiensis seem about as intimidating as Spongebob Squarepants. There is no possible way you would catch me in this close a proximity to a saltie or a Nile crocodile. Wouldn’t happen. Because those guys EAT PEOPLE.  Alligators do too, but not as often.

Second: I don’t swim, wade, or otherwise hang out in fresh water in Florida, except for the very clear springs. If you look at this listing of fatal alligator attacks by decade, lots and lots of them involved people swimming in canals or even retention ponds. That seems like utter folly to me; alligators are water-dwelling predators, and while humans are not their preferred food source, they’ll take what they can get if hungry enough. Alternatively, they might even simply mistake me for something on their ordinary menu. I am sufficiently respectful of alligators that I make it a practice to stay out of the primary habitat in which they have evolved over millennia to hunt. I do swim and snorkel in the freshwater springs whenever I can, but I am also extremely careful, and scan the area regularly. If I saw a gator, I would be exiting the area swiftly. I do paddle the blackwater rivers in kayaks and canoes, but I think that’s a reasonable risk.

Third: On land, I stay at a respectful distance. Alligators are not as fast as they are mythologized to be, but if they surprise you, that doesn’t really matter. And if you’re too close, they don’t have to be fast. Needless to say, I’ve never been enough of an unmitigated idiot (and that’s putting it kindly) to feed an alligator.

The one alligator death at the previous link that gives me pause is Mr. Robert Steele, who on September 11, 2001, while the nation was transfixed by other events, went for a walk with his dog in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Here is the description of what happened from the link: “Attacked by an alligator while walking his dog on a trail between two wetland areas near the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, Florida. Steele bled to death after his leg was bitten off below the knee.” 

This is the sort of thing I do all the time in Florida. In fact, Ding Darling is positively lousy with photographers like me during the winter months. True, Steele was walking with his dog, which is closer to a gator’s natural prey. But still, it’s a good reminder to me not to get complacent. When it comes to alligators, most of my lack of fear comes from limits and practices I’ve already put into habit. But I am much more unnerved by the grizzly bears in Glacier National Park than the alligators in the Everglades. Let’s just say that if I encountered a griz at the distance in the picture above, I wouldn’t be whipping out my camera.

Right before I took that picture, Travis and I were photographing birds near a canal in the Everglades. When we do that, we regularly see alligators, and we try to keep a close watch on their activities. We were headed back to the car when we heard an unholy racket in the brush, and this guy emerged and immediately proceeded across the road. The gator moved in a halting and ungraceful manner, not unlike the enormous Saint Bernard puppy next door who still hasn’t figured out how large his own paws are.

In spite of its apparent clumsiness, the reptile made good time across the street, ignoring us completely. I did use a long lens, and I was also close to the car, and ready to get even closer very quickly.

But I love alligators.


2 thoughts on “A brief musing on my respectful fondness for alligators

  1. We may have to agree to disagree about the danger potential of Spongbob Squarepants, although I’ll admit there is probably greater danger to young minds than adult limbs from my cartoon nemesis. That being said, “Ding Darling”? Seriously? If that’s not a proper name for an animated under-the-sea character, I don’t know what is.

    Is it not true that Florida has crocs as well as alligators?

    1. Florida has a small population of endangered North American crocodiles, most of whom live somewhere between the extreme southern coast and Key Largo. These crocodiles aren’t nearly as nasty as their Australian cousins. I’ve seen them a couple of times while kayaking in the mangroves.

      I also regret omitting discussion of the grave danger to adult sanity posed by Spongebob Squarepants. Which danger increased proportionally with dosage.

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