Living with Alligators
Ten years after a tragedy shook Sanibel, has peace returned?
Co- existing with Florida’s official state reptile has its challenges. Sanibel’s residents— some who love and others who loathe the gator— sound off.
Man and alligator have long coexisted on Sanibel Island. When asked how long alligators have been on Sanibel, Kristie Anders, ed
ucation director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation ( SCCF), says, “Never knew them not to be on the island.” Anders says the alligators swam over from the mainland once the island got big enough to support them. Sanibel has a wide
expanse of freshwater wetlands, a rarity for barrier islands. Combine this with a warm, subtropical climate, where winter temperatures stay above freezing, and you have a perfect habitat for alligators.
With more than half of Sanibel in game reserves and other undeveloped land, there would be few problems if the gators stayed there, away from people. But Sanibel is crisscrossed with drainage ditches, canals and various forms of the Sanibel Slough/ River. Alligators can move freely around
the island, and of course, they can even travel over land for short distances. In developed areas, plenty of places exist where they can feel at home.
As Mark “Bird” Westall, l ongtime nature guide and environmental activist, would tell people, “If these animals could produce vacation travel brochures, they would have a picture of your house on the front of your brochure with the statement in large letters: What a Wonderful Place to Live!”
But that didn’t seem to matter since man and beast got along. Residents and visitors admired the great reptiles from a distance. The alligators seemed unfazed and uninterested in their human neighbors. That harmony would all change on one fateful day in June of 2004.
It seemed that everybody on Sanibel knew and liked Janie Melsek. She was a landscaper whose business had flourished on Sanibel for over 20 years. She had fully embraced the Sanibel philosophy of living with nature and even went as far as using only native plants. On this particular day, she was working outside at a rental house on Poinciana Circle. Behind the home was a half- acre pond that a large alligator frequented. Everybody knew about this gator but it had never bothered anyone. Then the unthinkable happened. The 12- foot- long, 457- pound alligator exploded from the pond and grabbed Melsek’s arm, pulling her into the water. Her cries for help brought rescuers who pulled her out, and the police killed the gator. Still alive, Melsek was rushed to the hospital. Doctors treated her wounds, and she seemed to be surviving the attack. But then a massive infection set in, one which was traced back to the stagnant pond water. Melsek died two days after the attack.
Before the Melsek accident, the City of Sanibel had a “no kill” policy on so- called nuisance alligators. Unlike the rest of Florida where trappers were allowed to kill any alligator the public complained about, Sanibel used a restrained approach when residents called. Trained policemen would be dispatched. They would capture the gator alive and usually release it in one of the protected reserves on the island.
This policy came under attack when Melsek died. It had withstood previous questioning in 2001 when longtime resident Bob Steele was killed by an alligator while walking his dog. Island conservationists including Steele’s widow argued against overreacting to the alligators’ behavior. But with Melsek’s death coming only three years later, the public response was overwhelmingly negative. Melsek’s brother Lee and her daughter actively lobbied for a change in Sanibel’s alligator policy. Lee Melsek, a prominent reporter for the Fort Myers News- Press, was quoted as saying, “Letting alligators live in Sanibel is like letting lions and tigers walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago.” Rusty Farst, an island resident and good friend of Janie, said, “The Jurassic Park experiment here on Sanibel has failed . . . with grave consequences. Lord knows, we tried to make it work.”
Facing a public outcry and enormous amounts of bad publicity, the city council swiftly changed the policy to become more in line with the rest of the state. In fact, they went beyond that and allowed open harvest of any alligator over 4 feet on public property.
In truth, what happened next was a purge of Sanibel’s alligator population. Trappers came in at night and began killing any large gator they could find. “Over 100 gators were removed in the first week after Janie,” said Anders. Many were taken from the island’s golf courses that are open to the public, Beachview Golf Club ( now the Sanibel Island Golf Club) and The Dunes Golf and Tennis Club. Only about a dozen of the alligators killed were 10 feet or more. Some were as small as 4 feet. Barbara Joy Cooley, president of the Committee of the Islands, says that according to Sanibel Police Department records, 297 alligators were destroyed between 2004 and 2010.
Ten years have now passed since Melsek’s death and Sanibel’s radical change in alligator policy. There haven’t been any fatal alligator attacks on the island since then. All of the larger alligators, such as the one that attacked Melsek, were destroyed. There was one non- fatal attack when another landscaper was bitten on the hand by a smaller gator. Perhaps not a coincidence says Dr. Kent Vliet, an alligator expert from the biology department at the University of Florida. “I suspect people doing landscaping or similar activities near the water’s edge is the second most common class of attacks by alligators on humans [ after swimming].”
Unfortunately, the media frenzy surrounding Melsek’s attack was to be expected. Sanibel’s benevolent alligator policy was seen as the cause. The people of Sanibel were labeled as naïve conservation types who had unwittingly produced these man- eating monsters. At the heart of this argument was the idea that alligators see humans as prey. However, only two people were ever killed on Sanibel by alligators. In the entire
state of Florida, where 19 million people coexist with more than a million alligators, fatal attacks are very rare, only 22 since 1948, and none in the past six years. In comparison, the infamous Nile crocodile in Africa is reported to kill hundreds of people each year.
Some alligator experts have a different explanation for what happened that day. “Alligators don’t really hunt or stalk us unless they have been fed by humans and have become trained to approach people expecting free food,” says Westall. According to Dee Serage, environmental educator with the SCCF, “The alligator, which attacked Janie Melsek, had been fed, and the attack was a repercussion of that.” Vliet agrees, “As we know, feeding just enhances conditions for an attack. So, that could have played some role in this, if only to have encouraged the animal to be in the area.”
This may have also been the case in the Steele attack according to Anders. “He was walking his small dog in an area where a large alligator typically basked and was no doubt fed by people,” she points out. Charlie Sobczak, naturalist and author of Living Sanibel and
Alligators, Sharks, and Panthers, agrees that alligator feeding causes most of the problems and destroying the large gators was necessary. “Most big alligators were too people friendly,” Westall points out. “A purge was probably necessary. We needed to kill the alligators which had been fed [ probably most of the big ones].”
To solve the real problem— people feeding gators— experts have turned to education, and the SCCF has been the leader in an effort to keep the public involved. Serage is the primary “alligator educator” for the SCCF and goes into neighborhoods giving monthly “Gator Tales” presentations.
“Sanibel residents should inform people [ neighbors, visitors] that it is illegal to feed alligators,” says Cooley. “Feeding alligators is dangerous and it makes the alligators dangerous.”
Sanibel has seen the impact of the removal of large alligators from the small island, beginning with the population of juvenile gators. “Alligators are cannibalistic. With fewer large gators around, the survival rate of baby alligators is greater,”
In the entire state of Florida, where 19 million people coexist with more than a million alligators, fatal attacks are very rare, only 22 since 1948, and none in the past six years.
says Sobczak. Other not- so- welcome animals also seemed to flourish after the large gators were removed. “Green iguanas [ a feral species] also rose. There was speculation gators kept iguana populations in check,” says Anders.
The removal of the large alligators has affected the waterfowl population. Anders explains that birds would build their nests in branches overhanging large gator haunts. Raccoons and snakes, which love to eat eggs, would stay away. Small alligators don’t have that effect, leaving the nests vulnerable. And Westall puts it succinctly, “Smaller alligators do not protect the nesting rookeries for the wading birds as well as bigger gators.”
Where do we stand today? According to Cooley, in the period from March 2012 through April 2013, only four alligators were killed and many were just captured and relocated by police. This seems to represent a return to Sanibel’s old more tolerant alligator policy. Of course, the larger, more dangerous gators are gone.
Obviously, large alligators pose a threat to people. And everyone agrees that any alligator that’s not afraid of people should be dealt with. But the City of Sanibel and the SCCF believe if you take some reasonable precautions, you should be safe. They recommend staying away from the water’s edge. This is especially true for children and pets. Pay attention to your surroundings and never work with your back towards the water. Never swim in freshwater unless it’s in a designated area. Always view alligators from a distance of 20 feet or more. And, most importantly, never, ever feed an alligator.
Emotions on both sides of the alligator issue still run strong. Cooley cites from the Sanibel vision statement: “. . . a diverse population lives in harmony with the island’s wildlife.” “We should keep this in mind regarding the island’s alligators,” she encourages. But Farst remains adamant. “We are defenseless citizens in a fenceless zoo,” he says about the situation on Sanibel. He doesn’t want all of Sanibel’s alligators to be destroyed but he does believe that for the safety of the citizens, the island’s nuisance alligator policy should match that of the state. For Farst, Sanibel’s alligators lost their innocence on that terrible day 10 years ago.
Regardless of opinion, the fact remains, as Kyle Sweet, superintendent at The Sanctuary Golf Club that has a longtime resident alligator population, points out: “We’ve taken our communities into alligator areas.” Adding, “It’s a shame to kill the gators. We need to learn to live with nature.” Freelance writer Ed Brotak is a retired meteorology professor turned stay- at- home dad. He and his family live in western North Carolina, but they love Florida and vacation here often.
After a gator attacked landscaper Janie Melsek at this pond, Sanibel residents have been warned to stay away from the water’s edge.
This impressive alligator is just one of the many wildlife sightings that golfers at The Sanctuary Golf Club have become accustomed to seeing while playing the course.