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"If You See an Alligator" Safety Tips Offered
HOUSTON — Once an endangered species, the American alligator is now common in rivers, creeks, and backwater sloughs of East and South Texas. An ever-expanding human population continues to encroach upon the alligator’s domain, driving a trend of increased encounters between alligators and people.
Late spring through summer is alligator mating and nesting season, when gators are more active and visible. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologists and game wardens stress education rather than over-reaction as a first step in dealing with gators and suggest a "live and let live" approach whenever possible.
"Springtime is when alligators are most active," said Monique Slaughter, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist who helps run the state alligator program at the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur. "Courtship and mating begins in late spring and continues through early summer. April through July are peak months for nuisance gator calls."
Slaughter says most Texans in "gator country" will probably live in close proximity to these native reptiles with no confrontations. However, there are occasions when certain alligators become a nuisance and must be handled by the proper authorities.
The TPWD Law Enforcement regional communications center for Southeast Texas in La Porte received 1,111 phone calls about alligators during 2009. A substantial number of these did not involve true problem gators, and the sheer volume of these reports is taxing available manpower and resources needed to handle the real problems. About one fifth of the calls were handled by giving callers general information about alligators and how to safely co-exist with them. Many of the situations were temporary and with patience from landowners or residents the animals simply moved on.
"We have procedures in place where we try to educate callers that alligators are not normally aggressive, and if you leave them alone they’ll leave you alone," said Capt. Albert Lynch, who supervises game wardens that respond to alligator complaints in the Houston area. "When you have an aggressive alligator there’s no doubt, but a lot of the calls are from people who just have no idea that there are alligators here and have never seen one before. The mere presence of an alligator is not cause for concern, and during the active months in spring and summer they may be seen in retentions ponds, drainage ditches and similar places."
Alligator experts at Murphree WMA report that at least 80 nuisance alligators were relocated from 17 Southeast Texas counties in 2009, mostly from housing subdivisions adjacent to natural habitat. Relocating problem alligators is not always a viable option, and it can create greater problems, as by nature these animals are territorial and moving a problem alligator often creates a problem in a different location.
Authorities say what is needed is a populace better able to recognize the few nuisance alligators and to coexist safely with the majority of alligators that are not nuisances.
The current legal definition of a nuisance gator is "an alligator that is depredating [killing livestock or pets] or a threat to human health or safety" under definitions laid out in the Texas Administrative Code (Title 31, Part 2, Chapter 65, Section 65.352). For the public, the practical definition of a nuisance alligator is one that is at least four feet long and has lost its fear of humans so that it is approaching people or otherwise exhibiting aggressive behavior.
The number one cause of nuisance alligators is connected with the cardinal rule for the public: never feed an alligator or allow it access to human or pet food. Once an alligator learns to associate people with a meal, it becomes a permanent nuisance, and often it must be killed, since it will be a problem elsewhere if relocated. Since October 1, 2003, it has been a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 for anyone caught feeding an alligator.
In Texas, no fatalities have been documented due to alligators. In the past two decades, there have been 21 incidents involving injuries due to alligators reported to TPWD statewide, none life threatening, including three involving waterfowl hunters.
DOs AND DON’Ts FOR LIVING WITH ALLIGATORS
- Don’t — kill, harass, molest or attempt to move alligators. State law prohibits such actions, and the potential for being bitten or injured by a provoked alligator is high.
- Do — call your TPWD regional office if you encounter a nuisance gator that has lost its fear of people.
- Don’t — allow small children to play by themselves in or around water.
- Do — closely supervise children when playing in or around water.
- Don’t — swim at night or during dusk or dawn when alligators most actively feed.
- Do — use ordinary common care. Swim only during daylight hours.
- Don’t — feed or entice alligators. Alligators overcome their natural shyness and become accustomed or attracted to humans when fed. It is now a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500, to intentionally feed an alligator.
- Do — inform others that feeding alligators creates problems for others who want to use the water for recreational purposes.
- Don’t — throw fish scraps into the water or leave them on shore. Although you are not intentionally feeding alligators, the end result can be the same.
- Do — dispose of fish scraps in garbage cans at most boat ramps or fish camps.
- Don’t — remove any alligators from their natural habitat or accept one as a pet. It is a violation of state law to do so. Alligators do not become tame in captivity and handling even small ones may result in bites. In particular, never go near baby alligators or pick them up. They may seem cute and harmless, but mama alligator will be nearby, and will protect her clutch for at least two years.
- Do — enjoy viewing and photographing wild alligators from a safe distance of at least 30 feet or more. Remember that they’re an important part of Texas’s natural history, as well as an integral component of many wetland ecosystems.
Nuisance alligators may be reported to the TPWD law enforcement communications center for Southeast Texas in La Porte at (281) 842-8100 or in Austin at (512) 389-4848.
Information about alligators, including public safety tips, research reports and basic natural history, is on the TPWD Web site.
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