Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hunting and Alligators

I meant to comment a while back on Patrick's post here, in which he considers the difference in fatal alligator attacks on people in Florida (a small number) with that figure in Louisiana (none). What's up with Florida? Patrick says:

Perhaps such attacks are not too surprising in a state that has an alligator population of over one million and a human population of nearly 19 million, but it turns out that they are not necessary.

You see, you can have a LOT of alligators and no attacks on humans. That's the score in Louisiana. The reason: unlike Florida, Louisiana encourages licensed hunting of alligators, and alligator hunters go after the largest alligators in the easiest-to-find locations, i.e. the ones that are most likely to attack people and pets.

Louisiana actually has more alligators than Florida, but Louisiana alligators have never killed a human in that state's recorded history, while 11 people have been killed by alligators in Florida since 2001 alone.

The secret to Louisiana safety is that state's legalized hunting and harvest program called "Alligator Marsh to Market."

[snipped]

In truth, of course, alligators are not huge killers of people. In Florida, alligators kill fewer people than swimming pools and lawn mowers. That said, the number of alligator attacks in Florida is on the rise, from 78 people in the 1980s, to 159 people in the 1990s, and 97 people in the five years between 2000 and 2005 (suggesting about 200 attacks can be expected in the first decade of this millennium).


Reid asked for my take on this as one who lives in Louisiana and used to live in Florida.

I agree that controlled alligator hunting (and also trapping of nuisance animals) plays a part in reducing attacks on humans, but note that Florida has an alligator harvest program, too, running since 1988. According to Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission data, almost 23,000 alligators were legally harvested in the state between 2000 and 2006.

When I worked for FWC, I shared an office suite with the state harvest coordinator, a very smart and affable man who really knew his gators. I remember well the alligator habitat map posted on his wall: It basically blanketed the state of Florida, pockmarked as it is by hundreds of thousands of bodies of fresh water, more or less evenly distributed. Gator hunting opportunities are widespread in the Sunshine State.

So I look elsewhere for the difference between the Florida and Louisiana experiences of living with alligators. My guess is that if Louisianans suffer fewer alligator attacks, it's likely because more Louisianans are "natives," whose families have four or five generations of local history, if not more. Alligator lore is widespread in Louisiana and woven into its folktales, family memories and its recipes. The people who encounter alligators here are more likely to know something useful about them.

As Steve quipped with the equivalent observation from his part of the country, "Few cowboys get eaten by cougars."

The situation in Florida is different, of course. There are relatively fewer natives and more recent immigrants. And the development of real estate differs, too, as anyone knows who has driven south on I-75. Florida is basically a huge suburb, except where it is a huge city. There are pockets of wild land left, much of it managed by the state, and some surprisingly beautiful cattle country surviving from the Cracker era. But for the most part, people are as evenly distributed in Florida as the alligator habitat and the gators themselves. Since much of the human landscape is suburban, suburban people (actually urban people who commute) share lots of space with large, hungry reptiles.

With such an urbanized population of newcomers living in an ancient, epoch-spanning gator-pit, I'm surprised more Floridians and their pets are not eaten than are.

Louisianans, by contrast (though this is changing fast) live either in cities proper or tidy small towns, or the countryside. The suburban model of housing development is a relatively recent fixture here. Traditionally in Louisiana, those who might know least about alligators lived in places where they would rarely encounter one.

Those who knew them well and saw them often, knew what do with them (C'est si bon!...sauce picante!)

4 comments:

Zac said...

I would add that the alligators that attack people in Florida are not simply the easiest to find but the ones that live near people (suburban gators). Hunting would have no impact on these gators since hunting is not an option in suburbs.

It would also be interesting to know the average age of gator victims in Florida. Might the large population of retired people play a part in the attack rate?

Matt Mullenix said...

Don't know about the other questions, but average size of harvested Florida gators is 8 feet. Probably any over 6" are a potential threat to people and pets.

Peter said...

That said, the number of alligator attacks in Florida is on the rise, from 78 people in the 1980s, to 159 people in the 1990s, and 97 people in the five years between 2000 and 2005 (suggesting about 200 attacks can be expected in the first decade of this millennium).

It would be very surprising if the number of alligator attacks did not increase since the 1980's given the rapid increase in Florida's (human) population.


It would also be interesting to know the average age of gator victims in Florida. Might the large population of retired people play a part in the attack rate?

My guess is that it would work both ways: elderly people are less likely than younger people to be able to escape angry alligators, but also are less likely to be in places where attacks can occur.

John said...

I'm a fifth generation native of Florida and I've always suspected that gators were simply a way of limiting the population of Yankees and snowbirds :-)
I also suspect that the average a afe of victims may be higher than one might expect given the number of attacks that seem to take place near water hazards on golf courses.