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Hilton Head woman tries to wrestle up support to save 'Big Al,' the alligator

The alligator known alternately as "Big Al" or "Norm Hilton" rests near the bank of a lagoon in The Legends Condominium Community on Monday.
The alligator known alternately as "Big Al" or "Norm Hilton" rests near the bank of a lagoon in The Legends Condominium Community on Monday.

To some, he's known as "Big Al."

Others call him"Norm."

He's a 10-foot-long alligator who has earned such nicknames because of his intimidating size. It's his size that now has some worried he could be a danger, while others work to save his life.

For years, the reptile lived in a lagoon near Port Royal Plantation on Hilton Head Island. That's where he became known as "Big Al."

Last week, though, he went looking for warmer waters -- and probably a mate. The alligator mating season extends through May. He landed in a lagoon, not far from his former home, on property belonging to The Legends condominium complex on Dillon Road.

The lagoon is behind an apartment rented by Susan Conlin.

Conlin named him Norm, then screened in her back porch to protect her two cats, just in case he decided to eat something other than turtles and fish.

She also began a campaign to save Norm's life when she learned he might be killed as part of the state's nuisance alligator program.The program allows property owners to get a permit to remove and kill alligators threatening people or pets. State law does not allow alligators to be relocated.

"An alligator laying out on the bank where people can see him is not necessarily a nuisance," said wildlife biologist Dean Harrigal of theS.C. Department of Natural Resources. "He's visible, and there, his behavior may be quite benign but because he is highly visible, people may be afraid of him. Our protocol allows landowners to make the decision whether or not the animal is caught or killed."

Conlin and her daughter, Michelle Lee, have created accounts for Norm on Facebook and MySpace, where he had nearly 140 "friends" as of Monday evening. Conlin and Lee also contacted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to become involved in her effort and alligator farms in Florida to see if they wanted to adopt him.

"I've never been an activist about anything in my life," Conlin said. "And now, it's like, bam, I'm not letting him get killed."

The alligator is in clear sight of many residents whose apartments abut the lagoon.

Norm's former home was more secluded, with residents living farther awaythan at The Legends, said Douglas Skelly, Legends property manager who says he has been watching him for years. The alligator, which Skelly calls Al, came to The Legends one other time a few years ago. The reptile eventually returned to his original location, Skelly said.

"We have other lagoons filled with alligators," Skelly said. "We treat them all the same as long as they are not aggressive. ... What's really fun about an alligator like this is when they are not aggressive, you can really watch them and enjoy them."

So far, the alligator spends his mornings sunning on the bank next to Conlin's apartment. In the afternoon, he moves to the bank on the other side of the lagoon in front of a parking lot. Whenever he sees people get too close, he slides back into the water. Conlin said the lagoon used to be home to a 3- or 4-foot gator named Spike, but the bigger gator scared him away.

"He hasn't harmed anyone," Conlin said. "Why should anyone harm him? Everybody agrees, why kill this alligator just because he's big?"

Skelly said the alligator will be observed to ensure he doesn't become aggressive. If he shows any signs of aggression, he would be "removed and destroyed," Skelly said.

Skelly has obtained a DNR permit to kill the alligator, if necessary, with the help of the private company Critter Management on Hilton Head.

The permit will expire after 45 days, in which Skelly can either give it back to DNR or renew it, he said. He has also notified all the owners and renters about the alligator and ordered signs that say not to feed alligators, which will be posted soon.

Alligators usually become aggressive because they are fed by people and then associate them with food, according to Joe Maffo of Critter Management.

"We won't go after him unless he shows aggression," Maffo said. "The best thing is what's happening. Love it. Leave it. We know it's there -- just enjoy it and pay attention to what he'll do."