Not-so-endangered 'gators become pesky panhandlers

Down at the University of Florida, the alligators were getting too friendly. So, what do you do with a friendly alligator? Hit him on the head with a stick, says the Florida Audubon Society.

Is that any way to treat an endangered species? It is, if you want to save an alligator's life, Audubon researchers insist.

Alligators in Florida are protected, and few of them have been killed since the species was listed by the federal government in 1972 as endangered. Now the word has gotten around among the alligators that they no longer need to avoid humans.

This knowledge has been reinforced by humans who, in places where contact with the 'gators is easy, have taken to giving the scaly predators handouts.

Thus encouraged, many 'gators have become nuisances -- going so far as to come up to some likely human and beg for food. Problems develop when alligators mistake dogs or small children for handouts.

If someone files a complaint with the state game commission against an alligator, the reptile is declared a nuisance and, under current policy, may be shot by a state-licensed hunter.

This was the situation facing the University of Florida in Gainesville. Alligators in Lake Alice on the university campus were clearly becoming too friendly, led on by people who thought it fun to go down to the lake shore every afternoon and throw the 'gators food.Small children would run right up to the long reptiles, and there were a few close calls with snapping jaws.

Joggers complained they were tripping over fearless 'gators sleeping on a path by the shore of Lake Alice.

The alligator is the university's mascot, and even though the "Fighting Gators" football team had washed out on the gridiron this year, few people wanted to take it out on Lake Alice's leather-backed residents.

The solution? What any university would do: Re-educate the alligators.

"A 'gator that is not shy of people can be made shy simply by having someone who knows what he's doing hit him on the head with a stick," says Archie Carr III, a researcher for the Florida Audubon Society. "Then the 'gator will go the other way when a person approaches and he will no longer be a nuisance."

Hitting alligators can be risky, so the environmentalists around Gainesville supplemented the re-education process by warning people not to throw the 'gators food. They handed out leaflets around Lake Alice telling people they weren't doing the 'gators any favors by feeding them. Besides, they were told, feeding alligators is against the law in Florida.

Next, the university decided to build islands in Lake Alice where 'gators could go to sun themselves instead of lying across the jogging path. Bulldozers pushed sand into the lake, and the 'gators took to the islands immediately.

But an arsenal of sticks is still standing by in case some smart-alecky alligator decides he would rather sleep on the shore than on the islands. "If the 'gators still come up on land, we could convince them the islands are safer, " says Dr. Jack Kaufman, a zoology professor who helped coordinate the alligator re-education program.

With the success in Lake Alice, the Audubon Society is pushing to have the state government change its policy of killing nuisance 'gators. About 2,000 alligators are killed each year from a population estimated to be up to 1 million.

"That's a naive way of looking at the problem," says Alan Woodward, chief of the state game commission's alligator program, of the Audubon Society's proposal. "The expense of duplicating the Lake Alice project in other parts of the state would be phenominal. The taxpayers wouldn't stand for it.

"I like alligators, too," he said. "But when push comes to shove, we're the ones who get shoved. We would be liable for law suits and all kinds of criticism if we refused to take out a 'gator who later killed someone."

But Mr. Carr disagrees. "You kill one 'gator, and in all likelihood another one will come in and take its place," he said. "But a program that would first try to retrain the 'gator could be exciting stuff. The neat thing is that it would be building something on the sympathetic side of society."

The alligators have yet to be heard from. However, everyone knows that, first, a 'gator eats -- then, he suns himself.

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