While reading of the tragic attack by a Florida alligator on a two year old boy recently, it struck me that, although I’ve written about bear encounters, animal bites, and shark attacks, I’ve never written about alligators or crocodiles. Yet, we sometimes see gators in the lake behind our home here in South Florida, and they can be very dangerous.
Alligators are crocodilians, which also include crocodiles, caimans, and some other species. Solidly built and reaching large sizes, you might be surprised to know that these powerful reptiles’ closest relations still in existence are birds. Although humans are usually not on these carnivores’ menu, they aren’t the pickiest eaters. As a result, there are about 300 attacks reported yearly worldwide that lead to injury or death. Attacks by crocodilians occur mostly in Africa and Asia, mostly by Nile river crocodiles, but have also been reported in North America, South America, and Australia.
Although alligators look clumsy and slow on land, they can actually reach a speed of 10 mph. In the water, however, they can be agile and seriously fast. It makes sense to give them a wide berth whenever they are seen. This isn’t always easy, as their modus operandi is to stalk and ambush with only their eyes, ears, and nostrils above water. Once they grab hold of their victim, they hold it underwater until it drowns.
Situational awareness, so important in survival, will help avoid an encounter with an alligator. Attacks can occur both in the water and the water’s edge.Watch for mounds of vegetation that could represent a nest and stay away from murky water or shallow swampy areas of vegetation. Swimming in alligator territory is unwise, and they are especially attracted to splashing around. If you find yourself in the water unexpectedly, get out as quietly and quickly as possible.
Attacks by crocodilians most often occur at dusk or at night. Nesting mothers are, unlike other reptiles, protective of their young, and have a nasty temper. Having a flashlight or head lamp will alert you to their presence at night in or out of the water by the reflection of light from their eyes.
KEEP A DISTANCE
If you spot a gator on land, stay 75 feet away. If you’re camping in alligator country, make sure that your tent is six feet above the water line and at least 150 feet from the water’s edge. Store all food securely and avoid leaving scraps around that might attract them. Especially keep a close eye on dogs and children near the water’s edge. Alligators prefer smaller prey that they can easily drag into the water.
Alligators will sometimes hiss when they feel threatened. If they charge, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction from the water. If they catch you, they’ll try to drag you in. Once you’re in, your chances of survival drop greatly.
Let’s say you, somehow, find yourself in the jaws of an alligator or crocodile. If it lets go, it was just a defensive reaction, but if it holds on and tries to get you in the water, you must fight. The eyes are most vulnerable, and gouging at them might be your best chance. After that, any trauma you can inflict to the head might discourage it enough to let you go.
If all has failed and you’re in the water, there’s still a chance. The alligator has a flap of tissue in their throat that prevents it from drowning. If you can grab hold of or damage this tissue, called the “palatal valve”, water will flow down its windpipe and your attacker might just release you.
If you manage to get out of the water, realize that any bite wound is probably already colonized with the huge amount of bacteria that alligators have in their mouth. Even a minor bite will become infected if not treated with antibiotics.
Joe Alton, MD
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