Wild alligators demand our caution and respect

A recent court settlement should remind all residents and visitors to Beaufort County to beware of alligators.

The confidential settlement ends a lawsuit filed by an Ohio man who lost an arm in an alligator attack while playing golf on Fripp Island in 2009.

While we do not know the particulars of this settlement, it could send a message that resorts, homeowners' associations and golf courses must do more to stop people from feeding alligators.

An attorney for the victim claimed to have established that alligators at the golf course were routinely fed by tourists and visitors. Neither judge nor jury ever weighed that reported evidence.

But this much we know:

  • Alligators become aggressive after they have been fed. They lose their fear of humans. When that happens, they are extremely dangerous and must be killed. As the old saying goes, "A fed gator is a dead gator."
  • It is illegal to feed or harrass alligators. If you are convicted of feeding an alligator in South Carolina, you can face a $200 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
  • Still, too many people feed alligators.
  • Everyone who gets near an alligator that has been fed by irresponsible people is at risk, especially during such common activities as fishing from shore, retreiving a golf ball or walking a pet.
  • Last year, an alligator bit a Georgia woman who was fishing in a lagoon on Hilton Head Island. She said the attack was unprovoked. It happened in the blink of an eye. Alligator experts suggested the animal had grown too accustomed to people. That indicates it had been fed.

    People feeding alligators also was blamed in 1994 when a golfer had a chunk bitten out of her leg on Hilton Head. A day later, a security guard had to warn four different people to quit feeding the alligators.

    Even though alligator attacks are extremely rare, caution is needed.

    More public education and more warning signs are needed. Golf course starters should add a warning about alligator encounters to their list of instructions to players.

    Also, more citations should be issued. Law enforcement should tell the public what it takes to make a case so people can help provide the evidence that is needed.

    Everyone wants visitors to Beaufort County to have a good time, to get outdoors, to enjoy the golf courses and fishing holes. No one wants a $200 ticket to put a damper on a vacation. But what is worse, a $200 fine or the loss of a limb?

    Simple fairness is one good reason to treat feeding alligators as a crime. Somebody who had nothing to do with it can become the victim.

    Residents and visitors need to be educators by informing others that feeding alligators creates problems. They need to remind people that viewing and photgraphing wild alligators are fine, but from a distance of at least 30 feet. They should remind others not to throw fish scraps in the lagoons or leave them on shore because it can have the same bad results as tossing marshmallows to an alligator.

    Alligators are denizens of the Lowcountry that demand caution. Spread the word.