My daughter Kelly and I were recently watching a nature documentary that showed a family of Malaysian monkeys that, due to habitat encroachment, had begun to venture into nearby villages in search of food. I marveled aloud at how strange it would be to live someplace where exotic animals could just wander through your neighborhood. Kelly stared at me for a moment before pointing out that our own Hilton Head Island community is filled with wild alligators. "I saw at least three this afternoon while I was walking the dog," she said.
She was right, of course, but it's surprising how those of us who live in the Lowcountry become desensitized to the everyday presence of gators. My husband Steve encounters them regularly on the golf course, whether spying their tracks in the dewy cover of a fairway (see photo above), giving them wide berth while they nap on a tee box, or overhearing their bellows as they argue with a rival gator on the banks of a nearby lagoon (what we call retention ponds down here). The other day, one of Steve's buddies bounced a ball directly off the back of a resting alligator and onto the green. The gator just lay there as if nothing had happened.
Gators on the Move!
Territorial creatures by nature, alligators generally stick pretty close to their chosen bodies of water. Spring is mating season, though, so this time of year we're more likely to see the big males wandering the neighborhood to find a girlfriend. While returning from a late dinner one evening, our route home was impeded by a 12-foot fellow lounging on the still-warm pavement of a neighborhood street as he passed from one pond to another. We flashed our lights and honked our horn, but the big guy just gave us a bored yawn before finally moving on across the road to free our path. Just another day in the Lowcountry.
Some area communities have tried to evict the giant reptiles from their neighborhoods, but to no avail. One mainland development went so far as to transfer all of the alligators within their boundaries to a nature preserve on an uninhabited island. Within two weeks, new gators had claimed every single freshwater pond on the property.
Beware of Alligators!
Unlike the more threatening crocodiles of Steve Irwin fame, Lowcountry alligators are not especially aggressive animals unless threatened. However, you never know what a gator may consider "threatening". My friend Ellie was attacked by an 8-foot alligator last September while walking her dog in her own Hilton Head Island backyard. By her own admission, she was walking too close to the lagoon that backs her property when the creature burst from the water--undoubtedly seeing her small pet as a potential snack. The dog escaped unharmed, but poor Ellie slipped into the lagoon where the gator managed to break both of her legs. Thankfully, neighbors heard her cries for help and pulled her to safety. I am happy to say that, after several months of rehab, Ellie is back on her feet and doing just fine. The same cannot be said for the guilty gator, who was euthanized after the attack.
Most of us here on the Sea Islands and its nearby mainland love our alligators. After all, their species was here before we were. Visitors love spotting them, too, and they do make fun vacation photos--from a safe distance (gators can move faster than you think!). But please use caution! Ellie's advice to anyone living in or visiting the Lowcountry is to "never walk small animals or children near any lagoon. Also, while walking near water, be very aware of possible gator activity, especially during mating season as they are frequently seen walking from one lagoon to another."
I would add that you should never feed a wild alligator, as that disrupts its natural routine and lures it toward people as it comes to associate humans as sources of food. Remember that alligator harassment (including feeding or teasing the animal) is taken seriously down here and involves hefty fines and possible jail time. Leave the gator alone, and it will likely do the same for you. That way you can both live to see another beautiful day in the Lowcountry.
If you have a "Gator Tale" of your own, please share it in the comments below!