When South Florida was first settled, explorers and amateur naturalists reported herds of alligators wallowing belly to back in swamps as far as the eye could see, a roiling mass of what would become some of the most prized hides in the world. One of the first written accounts comes from American naturalist William Bartram, who describes in his 1794 tale of a boating trip "a huge alligator emerging upright on my lee quarter, belching water and smoke that fell upon me like a hurricane." Bartram fancifully writes of gators packed so densely that a person could walk on their backs as if on dry land. Settlers and travelers who first crisscrossed Florida said Seminoles and Miccosukee people swam, bathed, and played in waters infested with Alligator mississippiensis; Indians later made a living "wrestling" them for tourists. We have post cards from the turn of the century showing people riding gators using homemade bridles (or in one photo, a pair of gators hooked to a plow). Intrepid boys used to wade into the Glades to catch baby alligators by hand, stuffing as many as they could carry inside their shirts.
The Glades may not have been settled at all without the gators' help. Gator nests eventually became hummocks of dry land attractive to willow, bay, myrtle, and rubber trees, turning the River of Grass into something approaching habitable. Environmentalists know gators are crucial in the kinds of drought we had in South Florida in 2007 — they dig deep holes, as wide as 20 feet across, making watery refuges for fish, birds, and frogs to survive a dry spell. A gator makes a good bodyguard for birds, its very presence protecting eggs from raiding coons. And scientists are learning that the gator's immune system is one of the strongest in the animal kingdom, able to fight off a range of bacteria and viruses from E. coli to HIV. Environmentalists discover in the Florida alligator an almost perfect natural petri dish for environmental toxins, mercury, and manufactured estrogens.
The Florida alligator is still ideally adapted to its environment. Today, the ratio of wild gators to humans in Florida is about 1 to 20. We live with about a million of these animals. They long preceded us; cousins to dinosaurs, they're members of a dynasty stretching back 200 million years (upstart Homo sapiens, by comparison, are a mere 200,000 years old). Homeowners in South Florida, an equally adaptable species, have learned to construct fences around neighborhoods to keep el lagarto, as the Spaniards called him, out of their backyards.
Last year, three women were killed by alligators in Florida between May 10 and 16: a snorkeler in Marion County, a Pinellas woman, and a student on a jogging path in Broward County. The media coverage and public outcry had representatives in Tallahassee and officials at the Florida Wildlife Commission scrambling. Yet since the mid-1940s, just 20 people have been fatally attacked by alligators in Florida. Most fatalities occur during summer's mating and nesting season. Compared to the thousands of alligators killed by humans, two or three fatal attacks annually, tragic as they are, don't seem like reason to panic.
The roaring Leviathan people envision when they think of the Florida alligator — the monster able to run 30 miles an hour, scramble over six-foot reinforced chainlink fences, and jump five feet in the air to snag a dangled chicken carcass; the predator who gobbles poodles the way the rest of us eat popcorn — is real. But so is the animal that slides quietly away when approached by people: a shy, slow, cold-blooded beast that eats once every couple of months or so, an animal that wants to build its nests and raise its young in peace. The alligator wants no truck with humans. It watched the dinosaur come and go. It's not impossible to imagine it will outlive us too.
Lindsey Hord is the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Coordinator for the Florida Wildlife Commission, among other titles; one of his jobs is to oversee the legal trapping of 12,000 or so nuisance gators annually. "We have 300 drowning deaths in Florida every year," he explains, patiently reciting a comparative statistic he has well memorized. "More people in this state are killed by vending machines than by alligators."
If deadly or dangerous human-alligator interactions are increasing, Hord argues, it's because the human population in Florida is expanding, gobbling up land for development at the edges of the gator's age-old habitat. Unlike the human population, alligator numbers in Florida have remained stable for a decade.
As communities spring up on the western boundaries of South Florida counties, alligators move east. Ironically, our communities are simultaneously creating habitats the gators find delicious, with retention ponds, golf course water traps, decorative fountains, backyard canals banked by soft grass, and a plentiful supply of unwary household pets.