I have a confession, somewhat shameful for a self-professed carnivore-enthusiast: I don’t like alligators. Or crocodiles. One feels that one might reason with a bear, or a wolf, or a human, or any other potentially dangerous mammalian predator, but alligators and crocodiles seem utterly alien. They are creatures who appear to live entirely inside a reptilian mind, driven by instinct, lacking all fear and all sympathy and all reason except the reason that drives a creature to fill an empty stomach. They are interesting in theory, but of all the predators out there, alligators and crocodiles are – aside from people – the ones that make me the most uneasy.
Last Friday, startled to find myself staring an equally startled alligator in the eye as I kayaked along the Hillsborough River in Florida, I frantically paddled backward, away from the bank, as the creature – perfectly disguised in the sun-dappled water – turned and slithered towards me. Despite the enchanting tranquility of the river – overhung with moss-draped cypress and live-oaks, water so clear that turtles and fish were visible in minute detail as they swam beneath the boat – my skin prickled. The fear was primeval and irrational; the animal wasn’t threatening me, and after a moment it drifted back to the bank and ignored me. I was left contemplating my failure to live up to the level-headed ideals of a carnivore conservationist: no matter how hard I try, I can’t love alligators.
In the past decade, Florida alligators have killed more than a dozen people, enhancing my feelings of unease. Last year, grizzly bears killed two people in Yellowstone, but bears don’t bother me the way alligators do. It’s not simply a reaction to the idea of threat, or even the notion of being eaten; it’s something more specific to crocodilians – or rather, to my relationship with them. I grew up visiting my grandparents in Florida at least once a year, and I was warned about everything from the possibility of drowning to the risk of getting sand spurs. I was never cautioned about alligators, however, because they simply weren’t around. Overhunting had reduced alligator populations to a scant few animals by the 1960s, and the threat to the species was recognized even before the Endangered Species Act was created in 1973. They recovered quickly once hunting was halted, and by 1987, when I was ten, the species was removed from the list. Still, they hadn’t yet reached the population levels of today, when they have become so numerous that there is a nuisance alligator hotline for people who discover the beasts lounging in their swimming pools or irrigation ditches (the hotline brochure kindly informs us that nuisance alligators are killed instead of relocated, so if you respect animal rights, you may opt instead to hope that the alligator abandons your pool of its own free will.) My idea of Florida never included alligator-saturated landscapes, and this is probably why they bother me; they require an adjustment of my childhood notions about how the world works, and about what is safe and what isn’t. Such adjustments are never comfortable.
Why this reflection on alligators on a blog that is supposed to be about wolverines? I’m constantly taken aback by how terrified people are of wolves, bears, and even of mustelids. Understanding another person’s apparently irrational fears is difficult if you are not afraid of the same thing yourself. I respect big mammals, but I’m not afraid of them, and I have a hard time being patient with people who are. Then again, my ideas about northern wilderness have always included big predators, these animals have been present on the landscape throughout my association with it, and I’ve learned about them with avid interest. They are integral to my relationship with places that I love, and seeing and understanding them is a way of deepening that relationship.
In that spirit, I’ve spent the past few days trying to develop a more appreciative understanding of alligators. I doubt I’ll ever learn to love the creepy persistent gator grin or the pitiless, smirking eyes, but I have learned a few things that help me fit the alligator into the world. For example: only two species of alligator survive. The American alligator is one; the Chinese alligator is the other. American alligators range from Florida to the southern borders of Oklahoma, with the largest population in Louisiana. Chinese alligators are critically endangered, with only a few hundred animals surviving. American alligators made a remarkably quick comeback with some very simple protective measures, so perhaps Chinese alligators could too – if political will existed to enforce protections. The quick recovery of American alligators may be due to the initially sparse number of mature adults; larger alligators account for up to 50% of mortality among baby gators. They are cannibals, but not mercilessly so; females do protect their young, for up to two years after hatching.
Alligator embryos develop into males if the eggs are incubated at about 93º F, and into females if incubated at about 86° F. The sex remains open to variation for several weeks of development before becoming fixed. Usually, many more females are hatched than males. All baby alligators have stripes, and they squeak with disarming adorableness; they lose both the stripes and the adorableness as they mature. A full grown gator can measure up to eleven feet and can weigh more than 1000 pounds. They reach sexual maturity when they are about six feet long, and they hold “alligator dances” as a means of courtship. During these dances, male alligators use the spikes along their backs to churn the water and produce sound waves that, until 2011, had never been observed in nature, only in human-made devices. These sound waves travel efficiently and extensively in water, and they prove once again that humans who think they’re smarter or more inventive than the natural world are probably wrong.
The story of the American alligator shows that the Endangered Species Act can indeed work, defying recent assertions that the ESA is fundamentally broken and that it doesn’t actually save species. That story also illustrates the ways in which hunting and management can enhance support for conservation of predators, and – with alligator hunting supporting a $54 million/year industry in Louisiana alone – puts the lie to claims that the ESA prioritizes wildlife over people and that economic growth is always in conflict with protecting biodiversity.
I may never get over my alarm in face-to-face encounters with alligators, but I’ve managed to find a place on the physical and intellectual landscape for the species, and to see them as a hopeful rather than a strictly frightening creature. Contemplating their role in the ecosystem has given me access to a vision of a wild Florida that is in blissful contrast to the state’s bizarre human culture of obscene over-development. On reflection, I’ve also gained a little more sympathy for people who grew up in bear- and wolf-free landscapes out West and who find the return of these carnivores worrying. Ultimately, however, the world is a better place when it challenges us to continue to expand our understanding – and carnivores of all kinds have an important role to play in that endeavor.
With that, I’ll add that I also saw an otter on the river that day, which reminded me that there is a lot of news in the wolverine world these days, as well as exciting developments in my own Mongolian wolverine work. More soon!