Sanibel rethinks its experiment in gator tolerance

Mary and Dick Jalkut used to love sitting on the balcony of their apartment on Sanibel Island, watching Big Al sun himself on the golf course outside.

Sometimes he would be basking in full view, his leathery 12-foot frame stretched out by the tee. Other times, they might spot him tucked away in the bushes peeping at unsuspecting golfers, or heaving himself into the lake for a dip.

But Big Al is gone now. Mrs. Jalkut heard the gunshots last month.

"Everybody was discussing the killing of the alligators," she says. "I was stunned. Al was part of the landscape, and he never harmed anybody."

The slaughter of Big Al resulted from a toughening up of the nuisance alligator policy on Sanibel, which has treasured its reputation as an environmental paradise where man and nature live in blissful harmony. The policy change followed the death last summer of Janie Melsek, a local landscape gardener who lost her arm to a 12-footer that lunged from a pond as she was clearing weeds.

Statewide rules set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission dictate that nuisance alligators over four feet in length be killed if they encroach on public areas, and smaller ones be captured and relocated. But until Ms. Melsek's death, Sanibel had stood alone in taking a softer line and only slaughtering those measuring eight feet or more. Anything smaller would be trapped and released into the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a protected conservation area that covers half of the island's 17-square-mile expanse.

The Melsek incident, however, the third of its kind on Sanibel in three years and the second to prove fatal, forced the local community to reflect on its relationship with the island's reptilian residents.

A half year later, the debate continues. Not only has the city responded to the tragedy by bringing its alligator policy in line with the rest of Florida, but it has gone one step further by launching an "open harvest" of all alligators over four feet on public properties. Lakes and ponds can be pro-actively scoured for the creatures, regardless of whether they have been menacing humans, and they can be carted off for extermination.

In the six months since the crackdown began, state trappers have killed at least 80 alligators. Under the previous policy, the death toll was about five per year.

The seek-and-slaughter program has stirred emotions on Sanibel, a community of 6,000. Those who live here do so knowing that alligators are part of the landscape. Many are now asking themselves, however, whether that experiment in coexistence has failed - and if it has, just how far the authorities should go in trying to address it.

"The conservation ethic on Sanibel since the early days has been the idea that we can live in harmony with these alligators. It's part of the draw of the place," says Brad Smith, land manager of the Sanibel Conservation Foundation. "In the light of two human fatalities, perhaps that was naive."

Much of the problem, authorities agree, is that tourists, visiting workers, and even some residents feed the alligators, a habit that encourages aggressive behavior. Education efforts are under way to discourage it, including handing out leaflets to hotel guests, erecting signs, and working with real-estate agents to ensure that prospective residents are made aware of alligator etiquette.

"As conservationists, we find ourselves in a difficult position with this issue because we believe that man and alligator can coexist in close proximity. But I think people had become somewhat complacent and comfortable around them," says Mr. Smith.

In the wake of Melsek's death, emotions on the island ran high. "People were scared and wanted something done," said Smith. "Now I think people are beginning to think, 'OK, well, let's take a look at where we're at.' "

He adds: "What is being done right now in sweeping the island is necessary. A lot of alligators are showing aggressive behavior, and it's only a matter of time before another incident occurs if we don't do something.... But personally, I have reservations about what the long-term impact will be."

Some are concerned that the policy change was made without studying the potential impact on the breeding pool. Another reservation is that the open-harvest period has no end date.

Sanibel's police chief, Bill Tomlinson, who is in charge of enforcing the new policy, says concern for human welfare has to come first. In the past six months, he says, the city has received 180 calls from residents fearful of alligators that have turned up in their yards, garages, and swimming pools.

"It's unfortunate that an alligator has to be destroyed, but my job is protecting public safety. I personally couldn't live with myself knowing I didn't do what's right to protect that - having to tell someone down the road why their grandchild has been eaten," Chief Tomlinson says.

"Can we live with alligators? Certainly that was the ideal, and I wouldn't say we had a failed policy. The motto was to live in harmony with the environment, and that's what we have done. But in doing so, we created a situation where there were too many large alligators in a small place, and I think the only failure was that people treated them like pets.

"I hope that if nothing else," he adds, "everyone has learned a lesson from them."

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