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An Alligator Tale: When Predator Becomes Prey

What is the difference between basking and lurking? (Marcos Silveira/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
What is the difference between basking and lurking? (Marcos Silveira/Unsplash)

In the winter of 2015, I finally heard the alligator’s roar. This was something I’d hoped for ever since my husband and I had bought a house in Sanibel, Florida. There were always alligators on the pond outside our house, and we’d been told about their mating call. It sounded, people said, like a Harley-Davidson revving up. I’d watch the reptiles as they basked along the banks, and listen closely. But we were there only until April, when it was still too chilly for the creatures to emerge from their winter dormancy. They were interested in neither food nor sex, only in keeping warm.

But that winter was exceptionally mild, and as early as February, our resident alligator grew restless. He’d swim to the center of the pond, cruise to our side, then disappear into a corner. And one day, he roared. Like a Harley-Davidson revving. Wild.

When we first came to Sanibel, the popular Indigo Trail in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge was lined with alligators. After 2009, on that same path, we saw almost none.

By March, the alligator had attracted a mate. Fairly soon, the pair would bask together on the far bank. Sometimes, one would circumnavigate the pond, and the other would greet the mate’s return with a roar. Often, they’d swim side by side, gracefully gliding, till they’d submerge, in synch, a choreographed reptilian dance.

When we left in April, we felt sad that we’d miss the pair’s offspring. Female alligators nurture their young for months; we might have seen the youngsters riding on her back. I vowed that, one year, I would stay for the entire cycle.

A few days after we’d returned to Cambridge, a Sanibel neighbor called. She had, she said, bad news. The very day we left, a sanitation worker collecting trash had seen the alligator couple on the near bank — “lurking,” as he put it. He contacted the police, who called a Nuisance Alligator Trapper to remove them. "To conservation land?" we asked. No. These trappers sell alligator products. They captured the animals and killed them.

We were devastated. We had watched one of these alligators for months, the two of them for weeks. We felt we knew them. It felt like losing a pet, my husband said. And what harm were they doing? How were they “lurking”? Alligators bask. This is what they do. If only we had stayed another day! We might have saved them.

Gail Pool: "...our resident alligator grew restless. He’d swim to the center of the pond, cruise to our side, then disappear into a corner. And one day, he roared. Like a Harley-Davidson revving." (Author/Courtesy)
Gail Pool: "...our resident alligator grew restless. He’d swim to the center of the pond, cruise to our side, then disappear into a corner. And one day, he roared. Like a Harley-Davidson revving." (Author/Courtesy)

We and our neighbors wrote angrily to the town, arguing that these animals were killed without reason. If they’d consulted those of us who lived there, we would have told them these alligators weren’t threatening, we wanted the wildlife on the pond. Town officials said next time they would ask, but they noted the risks of alligators in a residential area and pointed out that our house had a history.

Well, this was true. Our house had a history. In 2004, a professional landscaper working in the garden was attacked by an alligator that dragged her into the pond: alligators drown their prey. Her screams brought help, and she was rescued, but she died within days: her wounds had led to massive infection. National Geographic made a film recreating the terrible event, “Predators in Paradise,” the debut episode in its “Hunter Hunted” series.

I think often of that earlier pair [of alligators], so peaceful and so unsuspecting before the trap closed, and I wonder who the 'predators in paradise' really are.

We knew this when we bought the house. Many people — though not the sellers — told us the story. But no one knew exactly what had happened. People said that the woman’s spotter hadn’t showed up, but she decided to work anyway, alone. Or that she had actually entered the pond, which she never should have done. Or that she was wearing earbuds. Or that she was small and, crouching down, would have looked like prey. They said the alligator had been fed by renters across the pond, and alligators, once fed, see a source of food in humans, who then become food themselves.

Whatever really happened, people grew frightened. In fact, alligators, unlike crocodiles, aren’t typically aggressive toward people, and fatal attacks are rare: there were just 22 in Florida between 1973 and 2013. But the town adjusted its alligator removal policy. The removal was intense.

When we first came to Sanibel, the popular Indigo Trail in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge was lined with alligators. After 2009, on that same path, we saw almost none. What damage that one rogue reptile had done!

This year, we have a new alligator on our pond, and I’m hoping once again to hear him roar and watch the reptilian pas de deux that will ensue. But I think often of that earlier pair, so peaceful and so unsuspecting before the trap closed, and I wonder who the “predators in paradise” really are.

Related:

Gail Pool Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Gail Pool is a Cambridge-based writer and the author of the memoir, "Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, and Other Fieldwork."

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