Roving Gators Prove Tricky for Florida Police Officers

May 13, 2011
Often the first responders in such cases, law enforcement officers are not trained to handle wild animals, other than to call in experts.

What to do with a rogue alligator?

One 7-footer was stuffed into the back of a Pasco deputy's patrol car and delivered to a trapper. Another beast was scared off by the wailing siren of the Florida Highway Patrol. And on Wednesday, an 8-footer was shot dead by a Hillsborough deputy after it bit a trapper's leg.

Often the first responders in such cases, law enforcement officers are not trained to handle wild animals, other than to call in experts.

But as alligator mating season gets under way, and the cold-blooded creatures are on the move, law enforcement officials are often forced to take matters into their own hands.

"Obviously it makes you nervous," said Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon, "When you get there and see an 8-foot gator that's walking around. You know, it's definitely a pucker factor."

Florida has more than a million alligators, experts say.

"There isn't a lake, pond, ditch, drain or mud puddle that doesn't have an alligator," said longtime Pinellas County trapper Vernon Yates. "The best thing you can do is stay away."

The state averages about seven alligator attacks a year, many classified as "unprovoked," according to Times archives. More than 300 gator attacks have been documented since the 1940s.

The gator shot Wednesday was meandering down U.S. 301 when Hillsborough Sheriff's Deputy Heyden Ayure came across it.

He called trapper John Wilson to come cart it away, but when the 8-foot gator bit Wilson's leg, Ayure shot it several times.

It's a response other law enforcement officers said seems appropriate.

"When you're in a life-or-death situation, whether attacked by a human or a wild animal, the outcome is always the same," McKinnon said. "Some circumstances may require deadly force."

"Our preference is to call a trained trapper, but sometimes its a situation where the gator is possibly dangerous to citizens," said Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll.

"It's how I would've handled it," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins of the Florida Highway Patrol.

The thing is, alligator-specific training doesn't come standard for cops like it does for the Fish and Wildlife folks. Law enforcement officers are taught to call in those experts, and in the meantime deal with serious threats like they would any others.

After all, these are wild animals we're talking about.

Just last month a 6-foot gator killed a dog near a Palm Harbor retention pond before being hauled off by a trapper. Last year a Naples man lost his left hand to a gator while swimming in a canal.

More often, though, gator sightings don't lead to bloodshed.

Sgt. Gaskins said the other night he shooed one off State Road 54 in Pasco County by turning on his siren.

In April, a gator made itself at home in the swimming pool of a Pasco home before trappers carted it away.

This month, a gator in Gainesville was scooped up and taken away after chomping on an Alachua County deputy's patrol car.

Yates said that in most cases if people would just leave roaming alligators alone, they will eventually mosey back to the water.

"They don't understand signs and fence lines and property lines," Yates said. "They're not ever going to comprehend, 'That guy doesn't want me in his yard, so I'll go around.' "

When they do chomp, it's usually because they're trying to defend themselves, said Gary Morse, Florida Fish and Wildlife spokesman. They're not attacking, per se.

The best thing to do is stay away from water at dusk and dawn, and never feed the creatures, Morse said.

"People and alligators can live without too much conflict if people follow some basic rules,'' he said. "This is Florida."

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