Alligator hunts raise questions in South's swamps
They're part of population control, but are public hunts ethical?
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"The real fundamental question isn't whether to use inhumane methods to eliminate these guys, but what do you do when society is divided like this, when some people are scared to death and some people just love these alligators," says Michael Conover, an expert on human-animal interactions at Utah State University in Logan.Skip to next paragraph
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South Carolina has an alligator nuisance program, but it's costly and time-consuming, says Derrell Shipes of the Department of Natural Resources.
Mr. Butfiloski, alligator program coordinator at the agency, points out that the new hunt will cull no more than 300 out of the state's estimated 100,000 gators. "Right now for a lot of people an alligator is a potential menace," he says. "But if you have a core alligator hunting constituency, there's a value in wanting to protect the animal."
The number of rookie gator wranglers in Florida has increased, as well, with 5,125 permits issued this year – the most in 10 years. Professional trappers and guides have been recruiting residents by bringing them along for hunts.
"We don't necessarily need a large public involvement to properly manage the alligator population, but there is a high level of public interest," says Steve Stiegler, an alligator biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "There is a segment of people who are interested in alligator hunting because they are a dangerous animal, and there is a higher thrill level than other types of hunting and fishing."
South Carolina officials say the Lake Marion incident has caused them to review the hunt. This year, only 300 out of the 1,000 permit-holders attended training sessions. "It's really hard to play Monday morning quarterback about what was going on at 2 in the morning," says Butfiloski. "But somewhere there's a lack of technique."
Inexperienced gator hunters
The key with a gator hunt is to snare the animal with a fishing pole or cross-bow arrow attached to a line, and then tire the animal out before it's secured to the boat and shot. What seems to have happened in the Lake Marion case is that the inexperienced men, working at night and caught in an adrenaline rush, may not have had the alligator close enough when they fired at it.
But the three North Carolina hunters defend their actions. "It's not like we were shooting wildly into the night," says Chris Samuels, a Hickory, N.C., arborist,. Mr. Samuels says the main problem was that the state wouldn't allow shotguns on the hunt. The .45 caliber pistol, he says, simply wasn't powerful enough to penetrate the giant gator's hide. Samuels says his group felt ethically bound to kill the animal once they had begun firing.
"People on the lake were so grateful to us that we had taken that gator out of water where children swim," he says.
South Carolina wildlife biologist Philip Wilkinson says he does see a value in having a public alligator hunt. But he points out that one reason alligators have survived so long is that their cannibalistic tendencies make them masters of population control. "Sometimes those big ones, if you can tolerate them, do the job for you."