Though alligator attacks in South Carolina are rare — so rare that incidents such as this month’s Sun City attack attract attention from all over the world — they are occurring more often, in Beaufort County particularly.
Fourteen of the state’s 23 reported alligator attacks happened in Beaufort County, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources alligator program director, Jay Butfiloski, who keeps records of incidents dating back to 1915.
Half of those Beaufort County attacks happened in the past decade. Nine of the 14 — including the 2018 fatal attack of 44-year-old Cassandra Cline in Sea Pines — were on Hilton Head Island.
No other area in the state comes close to Beaufort County’s number of attacks. Charleston and Berkeley counties have the second-highest number of attacks — three — the same as Sea Pines, a large, gated community on Hilton Head.
So what’s different about Beaufort County?
The American alligator is deeply entwined with Hilton Head culture, dating back to 1962 when Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser walked side-by-side with an apparently friendly alligator named Albert for a magazine photoshoot that drew eyes from around the nation.
The message was a marketing tactic for wildlife enthusiasts across the U.S: Come to Hilton Head and walk among the wild.
And it worked.
“The alligator went on to work as a sort of assistant salesman for Sea Pines Plantation,” a 1971 Island Packet column said.
A sign in Sea Pines marked “a good place for alligator watching.” One lagoon was known for a spot where alligators were “almost trained to wait for their dinners at the hands of happy men, women, and children, who flung them dish or other food,” the column said.
It didn’t take long for the “living among the wild” concept to present problems on the island, starting in the early ‘70s, when alligators started snatching dogs and showing up in people’s yards.
Still, the columnist wrote, “the log-like alligator is more often a comic creature than a dangerous one to man.”
And then, in 1985, that “comic creature” known for selling Sea Pines showed a different side.
The first reported attack
On July 24, 1985, 12-year-old Stephanie Coble, walking with her brother and their dog, decided to take a short cut by jumping over a narrow lagoon on their way home from playing soccer at Hilton Head Prep in Sea Pines.
“Kids don’t think bad things could happen to them,” Coble recalled this week, looking back on that day. They were taught to stay away from alligators, but didn’t give much thought to lagoons.
Her brother Matt, who was 16 at the time, leaped first and made it across.
Stephanie leaped, but landed in the water, a few feet short of the bank. Scooting her way up the ditch, Stephanie heard a beast from behind her.
“The air was really still and quiet that day, like how it sounds when a storm’s about to come,” she said. “I could hear the alligator coming out of the water toward me.”
Stephanie’s mind went blank for the next few moments going forward, but her brother remembers a horrifying scene.
“It shook me around the way a dog plays with a toy,” Stephanie said, recalling the story her brother has told her for decades.
For whatever reason, the alligator unhinged its jaw and let her go.
“I got lucky,” she said. “You hear stories of people hitting an alligator in the nose and it letting them go, but it wasn’t like that. I think I just froze.”
Matt carried Stephanie away from the lagoon, her leg muscles exposed entirely as the alligator ripped off several layers of skin on her right leg, and they hitched a ride with a random pick-up truck.
She spent two weeks at Hilton Head Hospital, and met a 70-year-old man who was being treated from a shark attack injuries at the time. He had a sign on his room that said “no sharks allowed.” Stephanie and the man bonded — two people who got the short end of the stick, living among the wild.
The Associated Press picked up the story, and her mom had to block phone calls from reporters around the nation asking to speak with the girl who was bitten by an alligator.
The incident shocked the island community grappling to balance between their infatuation with an untamed ecology and a need for safety — while feeling pressure for economic and tourism growth.
“Whatever the odds against such an incident,” an Island Packet editorial said after the attack, “the wound sustained by a 12-year-old girl last week proves that it can happen here and that a 7-foot alligator easily is capable of killing a person under the right circumstances.”
Thirty-four years after the incident, as alligators have made their way off the endangered species list and the resident population has skyrocketed, the odds of these horrific encounters in Beaufort County have increased and Hilton Head Island still wrestles with how to juggle human safety and wildlife protection.
Blame the humans
Experts point to a number of possible reasons for why dangerous human-alligator encounters in Beaufort County appear to be increasing — starting with humans moving into gator territory.
“There’s been more development in these areas in the last few decades,” Butfiloski said, “with a lot of houses being built next to lagoons, where alligators typically are.”
Since Coble’s attack —the first SCDNR-recorded alligator attack in Beaufort County — the residential population has exploded. Just 65,364 people lived in the county in 1980, compared with 188,715 residents — almost triple — in 2018.
“With more people moving in those areas, there’s a higher chance for an incident,” Butfiloski said.
Beaufort County’s unique population — which includes a lot of retirees and transplants who didn’t grow up in areas with alligators, coupled with millions of tourists every year — also could contribute to the higher number of attacks.
“A lot of these attacks involved alligators that were fed by humans,” Butfiloski said.
This is SCDNR’s biggest takeaway when it comes to alligator safety in the Lowcountry: When people feed alligators, they start associating people with food and are more likely to approach and attack humans.
“We’ve tried to educate people with signs warning against feeding alligators, but some will still ignore them,” he said. “A lot of times, people feed them just to see them.”
Hilton Head’s cultural landscape, founded on Charles Fraser’s concept to build developments around nature while preserving the wildlife, also plays a role.
“A lot of these places (in Beaufort County) are touting the wildlife and alligators being big a part of that,” he said. “There is an inherent risk when it comes to alligators, and there needs to be a balance with nature and safety.”
After a Sun City woman was attacked earlier this month while walking her dog, dozens of local commenters defended the alligator on social media when the Island Packet reported two alligators that showed aggressive behavior were euthanized.
“Aggressive behavior? If someone was prowling around my home (my home long before someone came and invaded my habitat), I’d be ‘aggressive’ too,” one person wrote.
“Thank you for euthanizing the alligator for doing what it instinctively does,” another commented on Facebook.
Thirteen of the alligator attacks in Beaufort County happened inside gated communities — mostly on Hilton Head.
Gated communities cover 70 percent of the land on Hilton Head Island — and a good portion of Beaufort County — which makes the area unique when it comes to alligator management.
SCDNR gives security staff/ subcontractors in gated communities permits to relocate or kill problematic alligators. In areas outside of gated communities, SCDNR-permitted agents rarely ever relocate alligators because it’s illegal to transport an alligator from one property to another.
“We leave that decision up to the communities, and sometimes it’s a struggle with ‘do we need to remove this alligator or not,’” Butfiloski said. “There are a lot of inner struggles within these communities when it comes to alligators. Some people hate alligators and some people hate killing them. ”
For instance, Sea Pines appeared to kill more alligators following the fatal attack last August. After euthanizing the alligator that killed Cassandra Cline, three alligators were killed within the gated community between August and December 2018. Before the incident, Sea Pines hadn’t killed an alligator since 2015, according to SCDNR records obtained by the Island Packet through a Freedom of Information request.
The other gated communities on the island reported very few alligator removals. Shipyard and Palmetto Dunes were the only other communities reporting alligator removals between 2017 and 2018, with two killed from each community.
In 2016, no alligators were euthanized in the 11 largest gated communities on Hilton Head.
Outside of private communities, state-contracted control agents are called to handle alligator complaints. SCDNR gets 1,300 to 1,500 complaints about alligators every year, spokesperson David Lucas previously told the Island Packet.
Lucas said agents consider the size, level of aggression and distance the alligator traveled, among other factors, when determining whether the alligator should be killed.
Since 2016, approximately 159 nuisance alligators have been killed in Beaufort County, according to SCDNR data from alligator program biologist Morgan Hart.
For comparison, Charleston County, which has significantly less alligator attacks, kills almost twice as many alligators as Beaufort County every year. Since 2016, Charleston County has harvested 267 alligators.
Two Beaufort County gated communities have faced lawsuits for alligator attacks in the past decade. In 2013, an Ohio man received a confidential settlement from Fripp Island Inc. for a 2009 attack when the man’s arm was bitten off while reaching for a golf ball.
That lawsuit was reportedly the first in the nation in which a private community was sued for a wild alligator attack, the Island Packet has reported.
In April, James Cline, the husband of a woman killed by an alligator last year, filed a wrongful death suit in April against the Sea Pines Resort and Sea Pines Community Services Associates (CSA).
The Resort and CSA were both aware of the “aggressive” 9-foot-alligator in Sea Pines, but failed to warn the public about it and failed to take appropriate measures such as removing the alligator, according to the lawsuit.
Causes of attacks
While alligator attacks are exceedingly rare, even in Beaufort County, there were common factors in several of the incidents.
At least four of the Beaufort County victims, including last week’s attack in Sun City and last year’s fatal attack in Sea Pines, were walking dogs at the time.
“In a lot of these cases, the dog is the attractant,” Butfiloski said. “The key is to pay attention when you’re near a lagoon, especially with kids or pets. Alligators rarely hunt on land and really don’t chase down people far away from a lagoon.”
Several of the other incidents occurred when the victims were likely distracted with an activity that brings them close to the lagoon — three were fishing, three were golfing, and two were landscaping.
Butfiloski said lagoon fishing can cause dangerous alligator encounters. Not only does it bring people closer to the water, but “you have a splashing fish in the water being pulled directly to the fisherman,” he said.
Butfiloski said there is no official protocol for reporting alligator attacks to SCDNR. His database started from a previous DNR officer’s report, and Butfiloski has been adding to it for the past two decades.
“There could be more that we aren’t aware of,” he said. “From our records, there wasn’t an attack from 1915 to 1976, but that could just be because they weren’t newsworthy back then.”
In 1985, when the Island Packet reported the 12-year-old was attacked, a biologist with the Wildlife Department told the newspaper he recalled that around 1980, an alligator bit a woman’s hand while she was reaching for a golf ball somewhere on Hilton Head.
In 1989, a man was found dead in a lagoon near the Tabby Walk Villas. The man was a suspect running from the police days prior and possibly hid in the lagoon while he was being chased, The Island Packet reported.
The coroner ruled at the time that the man drowned, but authorities “theorized” he might have been attacked by an alligator when he entered the pond because “there were marks on his left arm, right hand, and a portion of his right forearm was missing.” They never did an autopsy on the man, The Island Packet reported.
In 1996, a teenager was attacked by an alligator while running from a Shipyard security officer after he allegedly stole a purse. The teenager was hospitalized, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office report.
None of these incidents were included in SCDNR’s record of 14 Beaufort County attacks.
There are roughly 100,000 alligators in South Carolina, according to SCDNR. The American alligator species is what scientists call “one of the first endangered species success stories.”
They were nearly extinct in the 1950s and made a full population recovery after three decades of conservation efforts, the Washington Post reported.
“The population has stayed pretty steady,” Butfiloski said, adding that it’s controlled primarily by the removal of several hundred nuisance alligators every year, and the alligator hunting management program.
SCDNR gives permits for about 300 alligators to be hunted every year in four different areas of the state.
Aside from the few hundred nuisance alligators killed every year, the state’s alligator population is regulated with the removal of roughly 250 alligators during its hunting program.
Last year, only 8 percent of the alligators removed in the hunting program —and 19 percent of the nuisance alligators killed — in South Carolina were in Beaufort County.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why we wrote this story?
After this month’s alligator attack in Sun City, and last year’s fatal incident in Sea Pines, Island Packet reporters noticed that these horrific incidents were happening more often in Beaufort County, more so than anywhere in the state. Alligators are a part of everyday life here in the Lowcountry, and we wanted to find out everything we could about these creatures to increase awareness and prevent these incidents from occurring.
How did we report this story?
This story required a lot of digging — through newspaper clippings, local books and data from SCDNR. We also spoke with state experts, local law enforcement, and an alligator attack victim to gain a full perspective of the issue.