June was a sad month in Central Florida. To add to the sorrow of shootings at the Pulse night club in Orlando, a two year old was snatched by an alligator and drowned. Those of us who live in here know that “fantasyland” does not extend to daily life. I have been waiting out of respect for the Graves family to write something on the topic of alligators. With the publishing of a spot-on op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times by Darryl Fears (http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/column-the-natives-always-know-alligators-are-everywhere-in-florida/2282141), I figure it’s time.
I’ve lived in Florida for more than 35 years. Prior to moving here, we lived in the relative safety of Maine. We played in the woods almost daily, picnicked, hiked and even walked a quarter mile down the thickly wooded road to our closest neighbors to play. The one admonition I remember from our parents was to steer clear of bears with cubs.
Flash forward to my military dad getting an assignment to sunny tropical Florida. He gathered us kids together to tell us Florida is not like Maine. Forget playing in the woods or even stopping to pick roadside flowers. He told us there were poisonous snakes and alligators living there and we had to be aware at all times.
Our first exposure to alligators was when we visited Gatorland in Kissimmee. Opened in 1949, it was small classic roadside attraction in the 1970s complete with a giant gator’s open toothy jaws for an entrance. It was an introduction to getting to know our new state. We saw more alligators when visiting Silver Springs in Ocala. Outside of that, I don’t recall seeing alligators in their natural habitat; I just wasn’t looking for them. Now I can spot one even partially submerged in a canal while riding along Alligator Alley at 55mph.
Alligators are everywhere – fresh bodies of water and man-made lakes, retention ponds, canals, ponds on golf courses, etc. Rapid development has encroached on their home. I have swum in Wekiva Springs, gone tubing at Moss Park and swum in a couple lakes in my youth. I remember people swimming in Lake Downy in east Orange County every summer. People water ski on lakes here all the time. All the while I never gave it a thought that this is where snakes and alligators live. After reading about a fatality at Turkey Lake Park many years ago, I never swam in fresh water again.
I have a healthy respect for alligators and know to stay clear of areas where they commonly live. I never walk my dogs near bodies of fresh water after the one time I heard a low growl followed by a large splash into a pond on the other side of some trees where I was walking up on an adjacent sidewalk. By the size of the splash, I judged we escaped being attacked by a fairly good sized alligator. I live in a subdivision where alligators are a common sight, sunning on the banks of man made retention and landscape ponds and lurking in the water sometimes with only the area above their eyes and part of their tail visible. I have even seen two baby alligators up close – one in a drain culvert, the other behind a telephone pole on dry land. I would agree with Mr. Fears – alligators are lurking everywhere in Florida
(I am still more afraid of snakes and being bit by one. Even holding a Indigo snake has not quelled my intense fear.)
As to the argument that people from other states or countries are not aware that Florida being a tropical climate has tropical wild life – whenever I travel, I try to educate myself to what wild like I might encounter as a was to protect myself. Every one who travels should do that. It’s just common sense. We have to be responsible for our own safety. As for posting signs everywhere to warn of alligators – that’s a lot of signs. The fact is alligators move from location to location. Think of it this way – Very few beaches post signs about sharks, which we all know live in the ocean, yet people still go in the water.
I used to work at Disney back in the 1970s. One day I encountered a huge alligator resting across the entrance road to what used to be the Golf Resort while driving a bus. One of the guests suggested I get out and chase it off the road. Not on your life! I drove on the grass instead to get around and reported it when I got to the hotel. I can remember swimming once being allowed at the beaches but with the danger of bacterial meningitis, the no swimming signs were posted. There are lots of watercraft that run on the lake, so you could encounter one.
Unfortunately, it has been my experience to observer that there is sometimes a disconnect with some people when they come to Disney in regards to wild animals, something to the effect that some folks can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality. When I was working on Monorails, I heard about a guest getting bit by a snake near the ferry boat dock. When Medical asked why the guest picked up the snake he replied that he thought Disney snakes don’t bite! Thank God, it turned out to be a non-poisonous water snake. I say if it isn’t wearing a Disney name tag, it is a real animal and poses a danger.
It is wise to remember that Disney was built on swampy wetlands and thick forest, natural habitat to snakes, alligators, etc. It’s a jungle down here folks.