The big­gest dan­ger when it comes to wildlife is get­ting too close.

Houston Chronicle - - SPORTS -

Texas’ wild and feral places can be won­der­lands, but they aren’t Dis­ney­land.

It pays to re­mem­ber that and act ac­cord­ingly, es­pe­cially this time of year as sum­mer set­tles in and folks spend more time out­doors, in­creas­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­counter wildlife.

Wildlife is just that — wild. That’s what makes them so fas­ci­nat­ing and en­joy­able to en­counter. They are not do­mes­ti­cated live­stock or pets. And wild crea­tures are noth­ing like the an­thro­po­mor­phic car­i­ca­tures that may make for amus­ing en­ter­tain­ment but do a dam­ag­ing dis­ser­vice to both the an­i­mals and the hu­mans whose opin­ions and in­ter­ac­tions with wild crea­tures are shaped and guided by such Pollyan­naism. Throw in some out­right hu­man ig­no­rance, a bit of ar­ro­gance plus some just plain bad luck, and the re­sult can be dan­ger­ous and even deadly.

Ex­am­ples of this un­for­tu­nate con­flu­ence are ex­ceed­ingly rare. But they oc­cur. And there has been a spate of them over the past month.

Last week, a wo­man in Florida was killed by an al­li­ga­tor, the 26th such fa­tal­ity in that state in the past 45 years.

The same week, a tourist in Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park was gored by a bi­son when she walked up to the half-ton wild animal, and two others were bat­tered by a cow elk.

Closer to home, a man near Cor­pus Christi is re­cov­er­ing after nearly dy­ing after he was bit­ten by a rat­tler whose head he had pre­vi­ously sev­ered. An­other man, this one in Ok­la­homa, was not as “lucky.” He died last month when he tried to cap­ture a rat­tlesnake on a road, was bit­ten twice and died. This past week, the same tragic fate be­fell a golfer in South Dakota who was bit­ten by a rat­tler.

These in­ci­dents, while not aber­ra­tions, are ex­tra­or­di­nary. Most hu­man/wildlife en­coun­ters are any­thing but dan­ger­ous, even when the wildlife in­volved has the po­ten­tial to in­flict harm. But they of­fer an op­por­tu­nity to look at how and such things hap­pen and how to eas­ily avoid them.

Take the al­li­ga­tor in­ci­dent in Florida.

A 47-year-old wo­man last seen walk­ing her two dogs along the edge of a fresh­wa­ter lake was ap­par­ently killed by a 12foot al­li­ga­tor. Her arm was found in the rep­tile after it was cap­tured, killed and opened. Her two dogs, one of which had wounds con­sis­tent with be­ing at­tacked by a ga­tor, sur­vived.

That ev­i­dence of­fers clues to what hap­pened, and how to pre­vent it.

In this coun­try, un­pro­voked at­tacks by al­li­ga­tors and es­pe­cially deaths by al­li­ga­tor at­tack are al­most wholly ab­sent out­side of Florida. This is not from any lack of al­li­ga­tors.

There are an es­ti­mated 5 mil­lion al­li­ga­tors in the United States, most of them in three states: Florida (1.5 mil­lion), Louisiana (2 mil­lion) and Texas, which is home to at least a half-mil­lion.

De­spite Louisiana hav­ing the na­tion’s largest al­li­ga­tor pop­u­la­tion, there has been no doc­u­mented fa­tal al­li­ga­tor at­tack in the state in more than 200 years. Texas has a sin­gle fa­tal in­ci­dent in the past 150-plus years.

Since 1973, al­li­ga­tors have killed 26 peo­ple in Florida.

Why the dra­matic dif­fer­ence? My guess is that in Florida, al­li­ga­tors and peo­ple share the land­scape in much closer prox­im­ity than in Louisiana or Texas. Al­most the whole of Florida is al­li­ga­tor habi­tat, and the state is smoth­ered with hous­ing de­vel­op­ments rim­ming the shores of tens of thou­sands of lakes, ponds, river, canals and other wa­ter­ways ga­tors call home.

It is tempt­ing to say Florid­i­ans aren’t as aware of al­li­ga­tor be­hav­ior and habits as Louisianans or Tex­ans, and take more un­e­d­u­cated risks. But that’s al­most cer­tainly not the case. Most peo­ple, es­pe­cially those raised in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments (most, these days), are painfully ig­no­rant of al­li­ga­tor be­hav­ior. Do … not … feed

Ga­tors are not nat­u­rally ag­gres­sive to­ward hu­mans. They are the op­po­site. Like all wildlife, ga­tors’ nat­u­ral re­ac­tion to hu­mans is to avoid them.

Any al­li­ga­tor that doesn’t slip away, sub­merge or keep its dis­tance from hu­mans is not be­hav­ing nor­mally. And peo­ple are al­most in­vari­ably to blame.

Feed­ing wild al­li­ga­tors — toss­ing them fish car­casses or other pieces of food so that the rep­tiles will come closer so peo­ple can watch them — is a sure way to create po­ten­tial prob­lems. Ga­tors learn to as­so­ciate peo­ple with food and lose their na­tive wari­ness. This can create a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion.

Texas pro­hibits feed­ing wild al­li­ga­tors, a move aimed at pre­vent­ing the rep­tiles from as­so­ci­at­ing peo­ple with food. But en­force­ment of the pro­hi­bi­tion is nearly im­pos­si­ble.

It speaks vol­umes that the 2015 in­ci­dent that re­sulted in the only al­li­ga­tor-re­lated death doc­u­mented in Texas in­volved a large male ga­tor that had been ac­cli­mated to eat­ing food pitched to it in a bayou near Or­ange. De­spite be­ing warned that the ga­tor was po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous, a man jumped into the bayou at night. The act proved fa­tal for both the man and the ga­tor.

Any al­li­ga­tor that doesn’t keep its dis­tance or, worse, ap­proaches a per­son on land or in a boat is a ga­tor not act­ing nat­u­rally. Keep your dis­tance and there will be no prob­lem.

Watch your dog, too. While al­li­ga­tors don’t see peo­ple as menu items, they see dogs very dif­fer­ently. Dogs re­sem­ble wild quadrupeds — feral hogs, rac­coons, coy­otes and other mam­mals — that are reg­u­lar meals for ga­tors. A dog walk­ing along the shore­line or swim­ming in a bayou or lake or other wa­ter­way hold­ing al­li­ga­tors is an in­vi­ta­tion for an al­li­ga­tor to try cor­ralling din­ner.

While the cir­cum­stances of the re­cent death of the wo­man in Florida are un­known, it’s cer­tainly pos­si­ble the al­li­ga­tor that caused her death ini­tially was after the dogs and the wo­man tried to pre­vent the at­tack and be­came a tar­get.

Again, al­li­ga­tors are not nat­u­rally ag­gres­sive to­ward hu­mans. Yes, a fe­male al­li­ga­tor will fe­ro­ciously de­fend her nest and young — some­thing to con­sider as this year’s al­li­ga­tor eggs are cur­rently in­cu­bat­ing in their mud-cov­ered nests. But al­li­ga­tors that have not had their nat­u­ral wari­ness of hu­mans short­cir­cuited by il­le­gal feed­ing poise no dan­ger to peo­ple as long as they keep their dis­tance and don’t do some­thing stupid.

The same ad­vice — ad­mire them from a dis­tance by leav­ing them alone — ap­plies to deal­ing with ven­omous snakes, the other po­ten­tial dan­ger­ous wildlife folks are most likely to en­counter.

Texas is home to a healthy pop­u­la­tion of ven­omous snakes, and each year, about 1,000 Tex­ans are struck by one of them. An av­er­age of one or two prove fa­tal.

Many of those in­ci­dents oc­cur when a per­son is en­ven­o­mated in the hand, foot or lower leg by a cop­per­head, rat­tlesnake or wa­ter moc­casin they didn’t see be­fore the well­cam­ou­flaged rep­tile struck a wholly de­fen­sive move.

But a high per­cent­age of snake bites in Texas — the huge ma­jor­ity, ac­cord­ing to med­i­cal staff who treat the cases — oc­cur when a per­son tries to catch, han­dle or kill the rep­tile. That was the case ear­lier this month in the Cor­pus Christi in­ci­dent, where the man who had de­cap­i­tated a di­a­mond­back was en­ven­o­mated when he picked up and han­dled the sev­ered head. And it was the case with the Ok­la­homa man who in May died when he was stuck twice by the tim­ber rat­tlesnake he de­cided to catch as it crossed a road.

At least half of the snake bites in Texas could be avoided if the vic­tims had left the snake alone. This is easy to do with snakes en­coun­tered in parks or other wild­lands. But this isn’t a vi­able op­tion for most Tex­ans when they find a rat­tler or a cop­per­head on their porch or in their flowerbed; the po­ten­tial threat to fam­ily mem­bers or pets is too high to try peace­fully co­ex­ist­ing. Hu­mans to blame

Some of us who see those rep­tiles as the won­der­ful and cru­cial pieces of Texas nat­u­ral world might be tempted to try to cap­ture and re­lo­cate the snake. While ad­mirable, it dra­mat­i­cally in­creases the chances of be­ing bit­ten. And it’s not even that good for the snake; re­search shows al­most all species of snakes, ven­omous and non­ven­omous, suf­fer high mor­tal­ity when relocated.

If a snake has to be dis­patched — and it should never be done un­less the snake is defini­tively iden­ti­fied as ven­omous and poises a clear dan­ger to hu­mans and pets — a quick hack with a long-han­dled hoe does the job.

Use a shovel to pick up the dis­patched vic­tim and care­fully dis­pose of it with­out putting hands on the de­ceased.

Sadly, most en­coun­ters be­tween hu­mans and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous wildlife turn out much more dan­ger­ous for the wildlife than the hu­mans. And in most cases, that’s the hu­man’s fault.

If we’d just leave them alone, en­joy them from a dis­tance and treat them as wild crea­tures they are, things would work out bet­ter for all in­volved. shan­non.tomp­kins@chron.com twit­ter.com/chronout­doors

Shan­non Tomp­kins / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

De­spite al­li­ga­tors’ fierce fa­cade, they are nor­mally reclu­sive, dif­fi­dent wildlife. Ex­ceed­ingly rare dan­ger­ous en­coun­ters al­most al­ways in­volve peo­ple whose ac­tions place them in harm’s way of ga­tors that have be­come ac­cli­mated to hu­mans through...

SHAN­NON TOMP­KINS

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