Spotting an alligator is a pretty common occurrence in Beaufort County. As the locals say, “They’re like squirrels here. They’re everywhere.”
But for those who didn’t grow up here, coming across a gator for the first time can be a bit intimidating, and for good reason. While alligators usually do not attack humans, it does happen. According to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologist Jay Butfiloski, there have been 21 alligator attacks documented in the state since 1915. Eleven of those attacks occurred in Beaufort County; seven on Hilton Head Island alone.
Alligators, however, aren’t prone to attack. Usually, if an alligator is spotted near a body of water and approached by a human, it will just slide off the bank and into the water where it feels safe. Even when spotted on dry land, gators tend to just go about their business. But some gators may exhibit problem behavior.
“Problem behavior is an animal that shows aggression, approaches people or is being fed,” Butfiloski said.
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The last part — being fed — is a big no-no. In fact, it’s illegal to feed an alligator in South Carolina. Why? Feeding an alligator forms an association: From the first time an alligator is fed by a human, the alligator will associate humans with food. This will make them more likely to approach people in the future, and more likely to attack.
It used to be illegal to relocate an alligator in the state. But according to Butfiloski, SCDNR has changed its policy.
“We have changed our protocol in recent years so that not all nuisance alligators are killed,” he said. “In some cases, relocation would be allowed with certain conditions. A lot would depend on location as well as the animal’s behavior.”
Butfiloski explained there are two types of situations SCDNR would assist with: a nuisance alligator and an emergency situation.
A nuisance alligator would be an alligator located near someone’s home or on some other property that’s causing reoccuring issues. Before, any time these alligators would be “removed,” they would actually be killed. Now, if the alligator hasn’t exhibited any of the behaviors Butfiloski listed as problem behaviors — aggression, approaching people, previously attempted to/successfully attacked a human or has been fed by a human — SCDNR might be able to relocate the alligator.
Prior to removal, SCDNR must issue a depredation permit for the alligator. The department would not send its own agent for the removal, but a private removal company should be called. The permit must be issued to the owner of the property, which could include a management company, homeowner’s associate or private homeowner. To obtain the permit, Beaufort and Jasper county residents should call the local DNR office at (803) 625-3569.
In an emergency situation, an alligator has either stranded itself far enough from a water source that it cannot safely return or it is posing a threat to public safety.
“Some examples are on a public road, in a school yard, a shopping center parking lot, at someone’s front door or in a building or other structure,” Butfiloski said.
The department’s Communications Center should be contacted at 1-800-922-5431 during an emergency situation. This line is open 24 hours.
An important note: Never try to move an alligator yourself.
So how does one avoid an alligator attack?
The key is understanding the animal’s behavior, and knowing what to do (and what not to do) during an alligator encounter.
First, it’s important to recognize common myths about alligators, such as:
“Run in a zigzag to get away from an alligator. It confuses them!”
“Alligators have horrible eyesight. Unless you’re right in front of them, they can’t see you!”
“Just put up a fence! Alligators can’t climb.”
These are some common misconceptions. Running in a zigzag is not advised; the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory Herpetology Program suggests staying 60 feet away from an alligator to avoid an attack.
However, South Carolina State Parks released a brochure on alligator safety stating to “never get closer than 15 feet to an alligator. If it hisses or opens its mouth in defense, you should back away even farther.” The brochure says to run away as fast as possible in a straight line if an alligator does charge.
As far as an alligator’s eyesight, it’s actually quite good. According to the state parks, alligators are adapted to sense movement to catch prey, and have a “wide sight range” that allows them to see everywhere except directly behind themselves.
Even though fences are recommended for residences in areas known to have an alligator population, alligators can climb. Small pet owners should not leave their animals outside alone if the only protection is a small fence.
Here are a few more safety tips from the SREL Herpetology Program:
1. Never disturb an alligator nest or attempt to play with small gators. Alligators are most likely to attack during breeding and nesting season, which in South Carolina occurs between March and July.
2. Do not attempt to keep alligators as pets. State law prohibits the possession of alligators.
3. Keep pets and small children away from alligators. Small dogs resemble natural prey to alligators, making them prone to attack. Don’t walk your dog along the water’s edge or let them drink from or get into the water if alligators are present. Small children also should not play at water’s edge or swim in alligator-inhabitated waters. Remember: To an alligator, a splash in the water is like ringing the dinner bell; it announces the presence of potential prey.
4. Don’t become complacent when swimming in a gator habitat or doing any kind of activity near water’s edge. Stay in pairs, stay attentive. Avoid areas with heavy vegetation. Do not splash the water. Do not swim at night. Avoid swimming in areas with large alligators, which are more likely to attack.
5. Never corner an alligator. Alligators will most likely retreat into the water when approached near a water source. However, an alligator will not flee when surrounded by dry land; it will stand its ground.