Staying Safe With Wildlife
Most people know of the recent tragedy at Disney World, where an alligator horrifically attacked and drowned a two-year-old. Like many who visit the vacationland called Florida, this Nebraska family did not know alligators in the Sunshine State can lurk in any freshwater feature. This is perhaps true of many residents who are originally from somewhere else. Local wildlife experts provide safety tips, while emphasizing that the beach and water remain amazing environments.
“Visitors come to Florida and think of it as nothing but great beaches, like there are no worries here,” says Katie Moses, Park Services Specialist for Lover’s Key / Carl E. Johnson State Park.
“All wild animals are dangerous,” emphasizes Officer Stuart Spoede, Public Information Officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) in Fort Myers: “We have alligators, crocodiles, marine life, black bears and panthers. These are large predatory animals that are dangerous to humans.”
Officer Spoede explains, “Florida is undergoing significant growth. Much of that is close to the water, producing more alligator-human interactions and the potential for conflict. This is true for black bears as well. Spotting one is exciting and, done properly, not necessarily a problem or threat, as long as you remember they are wild and respect them as such.”
Never feed wildlife: “People want to because they think the animal is hungry or needs their help to survive, but they do not,” says Officer Spoede. “Once animals see you as a food source, they lose their fear of you.” Dana Kasler, Lee County Parks & Recreation Director, echoes that policy, offering, “If our staff encounters park patrons feeding wildlife, we educate them as to the negative repercussions and ask them to stop. Many of our parks and preserves have signs posted related to not feeding the wildlife and also what kind of wildlife is nearby.”
Alligators & Crocodiles & Bears, Oh My!
The FWC reports no recent significant wildlife injuries or attacks in our region. Despite Florida’s decades-long population surge, there is no corresponding increase in annual alligator bites; since 1948 the State averages 5 unprovoked human bites per year, with 23 deaths in that time. Alligators inhabit freshwater marshes, swamps, rivers and lakes in all 67 counties, while crocodiles primarily inhabit South Florida’s brackish and salt waters like ponds, coves, creeks and swamps.
“Assume every fresh water body has alligators,” cautions Officer Spoede. “Natives and longtime residents know this and are vigilant, but visitors and tourists may not. As professionals, we educate and convey this, but as authority figures sometime people tune us out. Often it’s better when ordinary people share what they know with family and friends, one neighbor to another.”
Alligators are most active between dusk and dawn, so be wary at night. Dogs and cats are of similar size to natural prey so keep pets from swimming, playing or drinking in or near water. Leave alligators alone! State law, in fact, prohibits killing, harassing or possessing alligators.
“Gators have a natural fear of humans,” reinforces Officer Spoede, “but they can be a threat. We limit potential attacks through the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program (SNAP) that receives over 16,000 annual complaints. The vast majority have nothing to do with attacks but about alligators being where people do not want them, like backyard ponds, ditches, and streams.” A SNAP officer or trained contractor will assess whether the animal exhibits unnatural or aggressive behavior and remove it before it becomes a danger.
Bears bring unique issues. “The FWC works aggressively to remove the problem animal, but the best strategy is to tackle the environment that attracts it in the first place,” Officer Spoede explains. Problems arise when bears have access to garbage, pet foods and birdseed. Even though bears normally do not risk human contact, their food craving can cancel out that fear. “Garbage is the Number One wildlife food source in Florida,” explains Katie. “Secure garbage because the more food-conditioned they become, the more wildlife frequents residential areas.”
Relocating problem bears to the wilderness is not an option, as there simply are not that many remote habitats without people left in Florida. These bears either leave the new region to return to their original home, as they are territorial, or resume old behavior in the nearest neighborhood.
Officer Spoede points out that wild bears now grow unnaturally large, apparently due to human food. “High calorie meals make them grow quick, just like people. The FWC recently had a record-setting black bear in Palmetto County weighing roughly 600 pounds as opposed to a normal-size one at around 250. Rather than eating healthy, like blueberries, they bulk up on pizza from human trash. The 600-pounder kept gorging on discarded donuts!” There is evidence the slow-moving, cold-blooded alligators are becoming heavier as well, from these same high-calorie human items.
If you discover a bear in your yard, get to a safe place and ensure the bear has a clear escape route, then scare it from your safe location by yelling, banging pots and pans, blowing an air horn, or anything else that makes a lot of noise. Once the bear leaves, canvas your yard to see if anything attracted the animal and remove it. If you see or suspect someone is feeding bears, call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922.
“Not everything is deadly, but wildlife can be painful,” Officer Spoede reminds. “We caution beachgoers about jellyfish and stingrays, with signs to shuffle their feet in the water. Fortunately, we do not have a jellyfish problem, though the moon and tides can cause an occasional bloom.”
Us or Them?
Can people and wildlife safely interact? And who is really more dangerous to who – us to them or they to us?
“Ocean-dwelling animals definitely need to fear us more than we them,” reasons Katie. “Just take our plastic trash, for example. We discard it casually, but to marine life it looks like jellyfish or other food. They eat but cannot digest it, just like we cannot digest plastic. That is a primary safety issue from us to them, but there are many more examples.”
Officer Spoede agrees: “Humans are always a bigger threat to wildlife. We invade their natural areas, forcing them to encounter people they ordinarily would not. Wildlife has limited space left; there are now 20 million Floridians with thousands more arriving daily, plus millions more visitors, tourists and seasonals. The more people, the less land for wildlife, the more interactions that will obviously occur and, despite best intentions, not all will be positive.”
Moses and Spoede are optimistic, however. “That is the beauty of Florida’s State Parks,” smiles Katie. “We foster and preserve habitats for people and wildlife to coexist.” He agrees, saying “that is why we are here: to facilitate a safe relationship between wildlife and people, based on sound education and cautious behavior. Never feed wildlife, employ common sense, watch and photograph them only from a safe distance, and observe their boundaries.”
For additional information, call the FWC Fort Myers office at 239-332-6972, the FWC Lakeland regional office at 863-648-3200, or see myfwc.com, and contact the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program at 866-FWC-GATOR (866-392-4286). With the proper respect, wildlife and humans can safely share their homes and habitats.