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Alligator hunts raise questions in South's swamps

They're part of population control, but are public hunts ethical?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 10, 2008

Texas hunt: Some question alligator killing as a 'sport'.

David J. Phillip/ap

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Facing more than 500 complaints a year about giant alligators in suburban swimming pools, ditches, and culverts, South Carolina has joined seven other Southern states in an ambitious effort to recruit thousands of would-be gator wranglers to cull the toothy and well-armored brood.

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They didn't have to look far. Nearly 1,500 aspiring Steve Irwins, most of whom had never before chased gators, signed up for 1,000 new licenses in South Carolina's first public alligator hunt in 44 years.

While the goal in part is to force a fear of humans onto the alligator population, the chief aim is to save the venerable descendant of dinosaurs from the jaws of public opinion, says South Carolina wildlife biologist Jay Butfiloski.

But the circumstances around the massive new hunt, including a controversial killing of a 12-foot, 7-inch giant on Lake Marion, S.C., by three novices, is now raising questions about whether appealing to man's quest for adventure in the swamps is really the best and most ethical way to ease growing tensions between gators and people.

"When they first started, the hunt was more of a commercial hunt than a sport hunt," says Franklin Percival, an alligator expert at the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in Gainesville. "They've gone in more recent years toward something that involved a lot of people who had never done it before."

To critics like Joe Maffo, an animal control expert on Hilton Head Island, S.C., it could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Mr. Maffo has joined a call for the state to abandon the hunt following an incident on Sept. 20 where three North Carolina men needed 18 shots from a large pistol to kill a gator that weighed as much as a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

"It was barbaric," says Maffo. "It was something from the prehistoric era where you spear your game and then you track it down. You need to leave [this hunt] to the pros."

Alligator population growing

After nearly collapsing in the 1960s, the American alligator has rebounded to such an extent in the South that the ancient recluse has become a commonplace sighting along roadways and ditches in eight low-country states. There are an estimated 100,000 animals in South Carolina alone and perhaps 1.5 million in Florida.

During the same period, millions of people have moved into the historic alligator range. Research in Florida shows that what amounts to a territorial conflict has elicited both fear and fascination with an animal that reached its evolutionary peak 200 million years ago.

"Alligators are a nuisance because we've made them a nuisance," says Mary Martin, a Jupiter, Fla., writer and proprietor of, an animal rights website. "We keep encroaching and we keep doing things [like feeding them] that bring them closer and make them less fearful."

Another problem is that the vast majority of gators in the wild are now adults, many stretching over 10 feet long. Officials say 419 people have been bitten in Florida since 1948, including 20 fatalities – two in 2006. Officials say 141 of those incidents happened while an alligator was being moved or provoked.