Liv­ing with Al­li­ga­tors

Ten years af­ter a tragedy shook Sani­bel, has peace re­turned?

Times of the Islands - - Features - BY ED BRO­TAK

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.

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.

Af­ter a ga­tor at­tacked land­scaper Janie Melsek at this pond, Sani­bel res­i­dents have been warned to stay away from the wa­ter’s edge.

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