Monday, March 20, 2006

Reptilian Revenge?


I was in Florida a few weeks ago. Saw a lot of wildlife. This was good, as I had to write this piece about the lizardly critters of a certain part of West Florida...

The Town The Gators Ate

It doesn’t look like a disaster zone. In fact it looks like a very nice place: a row of sun-baked barrier isles, shaded by palm trees, with lawns, flowerbeds, and shell-rich beaches, sloping down to the warm blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

But maybe it’s this very desirability that is the problem. A lot of people want to live in this favoured part of Florida’s west coast - on Sanibel and Captiva islands - and so do lots of animals, including alligators. And when so many creatures are trying to cram into such a small if adorable area, something’s got to give.

If there were ever a legal action over the ‘disaster’ of Sanibel, the alligators could rightly claim that they were here first. After all the American alligator (it’s also known as the Mississippi alligator) has been an inhabitant of Florida, and elsewhere in the southeastern USA, for at least a million years.

For most of that time the alligators lived undisturbed lives. Even when the white settlers arrived in the Sunshine State, replacing the scattered tribes of Seminole Indians, all seemed well twixt the humans and the lizards. This was partly because Florida is a big place, and for many decades alligators and humans were able to coexist by simple avoidance. Basically the humans stuck to Miami, the Keys, and the eastern coast, while the gators enjoyed life in the Everglades, the central forests, and along the Gulf Coast: from Naples to Sanibel.

But then the new settlements began to expand. Jeff Fuery is a gator expert from the Florida Wildlife Commission. He explains what happened next.

“There shouldn’t really have been any problem. Gators aren’t a natural enemy of man. Nor do they like us as food, normally. The smaller gators eat little invertebrates, like insects, fish and frogs, the older or bigger ones like turtles, big fish and birds. All gators like carrion.” He pauses, and adds. “That said, the habitat of the Florida gators has been shrinking, so the reptiles are encountering humans more often. And when alligators get sufficiently confused, or desensitized to human presence, they may also expand their choice of prey to… bigger mammals. A particular problem is when tourists, or people unused to gators, start to feed them; then the reptiles begin to see us food sources. As the Sanibel tragedies show.”

So what actually happened in Sanibel? To understand this we need to know the history of alligator management in Florida.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Florida’s alligators were regarded essentially as vermin. They were hunted for their pale belly-skins, which made beautiful handbags, shoes, and purses; they were destroyed by fishermen to protect precious fish stocks; they were shot by Yankee trophy-hunters for sport. As a result populations crashed, right up to the early 1960s, when a programme of conservation was introduced.

Ever since, the alligators of Florida have recovered. Indeed some would say the gators have been almost too successful: with numbers shooting up through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it is now thought at least a million alligators cruise the rivers, swamps and canals of the Sunshine State. The breeding success is probably due to two things: female alligators lay a whopping 40 eggs at a time; and man has wiped out the gator’s only natural predator (aside from himself): the panther.

As the numbers have increased, so have the problems. The first recorded lethal American alligator attack happened in 1946, when a mullet fisherman was ripped from his boat by an aggressive alligator; only half his body was ever found. After ‘46 there were many more attacks, some of them fatal. According to Scott Buznan, of Tallahassee Greenpeace, one of the particular problems was Florida’s recreational lifestyle: i.e. all the swimming pools, ornamental lakes, and water features on golf courses. Apparently, these were confusing the lizards.

“You see,” Buznan says, “Places like swimming pools are deceptively attractive. They look wet and inviting to a gator, so he dives in and then he finds that they are actually very sterile - there’s no fish, no frogs, no insects, no nothing. And then he’s hungry. So he goes after what there is nearby. A poodle. Or maybe a jogger.”

It was a recipe for mayhem, and it led to attacks. To combat these dangers, at the beginning of the 1970s Florida introduced a “nuisance gator” policy, whereby any alligator over four foot long, or considered to be a threat, was removed by trained gator specialists to somewhere safe, and well away from humans: like the Everglades National Park. Yet one place in Florida stood out from this policy: and that place was Sanibel island.

Ever since it was discovered by the Gatsby generation in the 1920s - and was used by affluent luminaries like President Teddy Roosevelt for his huntin’ and fishin’ holidays - pricey and beautiful Sanibel has thought itself slightly superior to the rest of Florida. This sense of difference also applied to its alligator agenda. In the 1980s Sanibel Council decided to do away with nuisance gator removal, and try and live alongside the lizards. The city received a special permit from the state that allowed it to relocate many nuisance alligators to the adjoining J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

No other Florida community was granted such a permit. As a consequence, the Sanibel alligators, in particular, grew in size, and in numbers, and in boldness.

The result was little short of disaster. First the local dogs were attacked. Bob Lescott was out playing catch with his dog, Solomon, in 2000, when the dog ran into the woods after it heard a noise. Moments later, Lescott and his friends found themselves wrestling an angry 11-foot lizard, to try and free the dog. Lescott recalls how his pet appeared to be stuck in the muck. He says, "I realized something was stronger than muck holding him back and the gator just raised his head."

Remarkably, they managed to yank the howling dog from the gator’s bloody jaws, and the dog survived.

Then sixteen-year-old Gabrimar Rivero saw her Cocker Spaniel Puchi eaten by a hungry Sanibel gator. Gabrimar was on the other side of her family’s swimming pool when she witnessed an 8-foot-alligator sprint from the water, and grab Puchi. "I thought it was a bird that was being taken. I just couldn't accept the fact that it was my dog disappearing down this… open mouth.” This dog never barked again.

Bill Baird was another west Florida resident whose beloved family pooch disappeared down the jaws of a voracious gator. When Baird discovered Krissy, his Labrador, on a March 2000 evening, she was bobbing in the lake behind his Veterans Village home. Or at least, what was left of her was bobbing there: a 10-foot alligator had bitten away Krissy’s chest, neck and one leg, the lakewater was viscous with blood and bits of gore.

To make things worse, it turned out neighbors had already complained about the guilty alligator to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, just weeks before.

“I knew that alligator was going to eat that dog," says Bernie Capasso, who lived across the lake from Baird. Several times, Capasso says, the alligator crawled up behind his home. And twice it snatched up a duck. When the gator muscled onto land, the young dog would bark at the reptile. Capasso, worried about the alligator attacking a child or a pet, had filed a complaint with fish and wildlife officials. "I even had guns and stuff, but I was told I couldn't shoot it." The Sanibel alligator-tolerance policy forbade such drastic measures.

It was only a matter of time before the gators turned to human meat. Soon after these dog incidents, a pastor at the First United Methodist Church was attacked and pulled under the water by a 6-foot-long alligator. Rick Cabot was going for a morning swim in a lake as part of his triathalon training when he felt the gator seize him and drag him under. Amazingly, Cabot punched the alligator on the nose until he was released.

"I was underwater this whole time, but I don't remember ever feeling panicked or short of breath or anything. I do remember thinking, 'I cannot believe a gator has my leg,' and I think that's when I punched it in the nose.”

A few weeks later, Alec Pullman had a similar story to tell. “It came from nowhere. I was cycling by the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, on Sanibel island, and it hurtled out of the bushes and just started shaking me and I hollered," A friend who witnessed the attack said: "his body was being slung around, it was unbelievable." Alec’s friends pulled him to safety.

The carnage was getting worse. From June 2002 to May 2003, Sanibel police received 102 calls reporting nuisance alligators. For the same period in 2003-04, there were 163 calls. If there was any doubt as to what was happening, it was removed on July 21 2004, when landscaper Janie Melsek was attacked by a massive 12 foot alligator as she was trimming vegetation beside a pond. David Gimson was a neighbour, he describes what happened:

“This huge bull gator had her by the arm, and it was pulling her under the water. I guess it wanted to store her underwater until she rotted, that’s what they like to do, they like rotting meat. But Janie was fighting,” he says, with a shudder. Then he adds: “So me, and two other neighbours, we dived in to the pond with the gator and we kept Janie’s head above the water, just, and eventually the gator chewed Janie’s arm off at the shoulder. And that’s how we got Janie back on to dry land.”

Melsek had lost the main part of her right arm - but at first she appeared to be recovering. Two days later, she died from an infection caused by the alligator bites.

Pretty bad. But Janie Melsek wasn’t the only Sanibel alligator fatality: she wasn’t even the first. In September 2001, 81 year old Robert Steele was walking his dog besides a Sanibel canal, when a big alligator came out and grabbed him; Steele apparently fought for his life, but the gator chomped off his left leg, and slunk back into the waters. Steele died hours later of blood loss. When the local rangers went to tackle the killer gator, they found the lizard ‘acting skittish’ as it swam along the canal; it was still clutching Steele’s leg in its mouth - almost like a trophy. The gator was shot sixteen times before it died.

Finally, there was 71 year old Jane Keefer. Her attack happened around the same time as Melsek’s. She was tending her Sanibel garden when a 9 foot gator jumped her, and grabbed her around the torso; remarkably, her husband heard the commotion, ran over, and managed to pry the greasy jaws apart to save his wife. This was quite a feat, as alligator jaws have tremendous gripping power: you can hold them shut with finger and thumb, but it would normally take two grown men to winch open a gator’s clamped teeth. Somehow, Keefer’s elderly husband managed it by himself.

But enough was enough. Two fatalities, and one near fatality, had led to questions. Property prices were starting to fall; people were afraid to walk their dogs, to cycle, to explore the island’s beaches and wildlife reserves. "Something had to be done, and fast," says Florida State Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gary Morse, "The island was dying before our eyes."

Many others agreed. "Letting alligators live in Sanibel," Janie Melsek’s brother told the Fort Myers News-Press, "is like letting lions and tigers walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago." The pressure was now immense. In 2005 Sanibel community finally bowed to the inevitable. Its unique policy of gator tolerance was rescinded; now, as elsewhere in Florida, all large or ‘nuisance’ alligators are instantly captured, shot, or relocated.

But still, one question, remains. Why did the Sanibel alligators turn so dangerous, so suddenly? Was it just because they were hungry, or desensitized, or being fed by tourists, which are the usual explanations for alligator attacks? Jeff Fuery is not sure: “It feels odd, like something out of Hitchcock. Why did they turn on us like that? None of the rational explanations quite fit the bill. I’d like to find out soon - because it may one day happen again. And next time it might be worse.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where did you get your information on the Meseck and Steele attacks? Maybe you should have read the police reports to verify you sources.