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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In the 1960's, the American alligator was almost extinct in Florida. Since then, the state's conservation efforts have helped the alligator population bounce back. Over the same period, the number of humans in Florida has skyrocketed. And as Alexis Muellner discovered, when the two groups cross paths, it's not always a pleasant encounter.


CURWOOD: By the 1960s, the American alligator had been hunted to the brink of extinction in Florida. But then, a series of conservation efforts helped the gators bounce back, and today there are thousands of the carnivorous reptiles in the state, commanding the top of the food chain throughout the wetlands. Gators will eat just about anything that moves, and as Alexis Muellner discovered, if one fixes those heavy-lidded eyes on you, it may have dinner on its mind.

MUELLNER: A friend and I rented a canoe and headed for Hell's Bay, a remote campsite in a park's southern swampy wetlands. It was a 5-hour paddle through a shallow, twisty waterway, snarled with mangroves, hefty mosquitoes, and nipping horseflies. We heard the campsite came with its own friendly alligator. As we neared Hell's Bay, we ran into a kayaker who'd just stopped there. Sure enough, he said, the Hell's Bay gator had shown up.

I've lived in South Florida for 8 years, so I'm used to seeing gators. In fact, I've nearly run over some while bike-riding on the paved path in the park. They've always seemed passive to me, but that wasn't true of the gator at Hell's Bay. As soon as we pulled up to the hut, our snaggle-toothed host arrived, looking for a tasty tariff. It waddled around the submerged posts of the hut, eyeing our movements, acting like a hungry dog. As night fell, we started dinner. Every few minutes we'd cast the flashlight across the water, and occasionally the alligators cold, hungry stare would reflect. After dinner, I grew cramped from sitting cross-legged. I decided it'd be ok to stretch my legs out over the edge of the hut. The stealthy attack lasted a third of a second. The gator lurched from below, stabbing at my foot. I yanked my legs up and screamed. A moment later I realized I was bleeding. It was a small puncture wound, not a big deal. As my heart slowed, I marvelled at my luck, and shuddered at the thoughts of what could have happened. Then the broader picture set in. Unbelievable. Even in the remote reaches of the swamp, where you'd think visiting canoeists would be conscious about not feeding wildlife, someone had gorged this alligator on Twinkies, or trailmix, or cold-cuts, perhaps. Gators in general don't have much to do with humans, and are in fact afraid of them. But after a few snacks, they get over that fear, and they're out to get aggressive. Hell's Bay closed for a few weeks after my encounter, while rangers successfully drove off what they called "the nuisance alligator," by banging a pipe in the water and using pepper spray. I was told initially that if the gator didn't leave, rangers would resort to "other measures." I later felt a sense of relief, knowing that the gator didn't get killed for taking a swipe at me. After all, who invaded whose habitat, anyway?

CURWOOD: Alexis Muellner is a reporter based in Miami. He comes to us from member station WLRN.



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