It’s hard, when you’re up to your armpits in alligators, to remember you came here to drain the swamp.Ronald Reagan
I feel when people travel to Florida, they have this presumption view that everything here is palm trees swaying, ocean breezes, and a magical mouse that grants wishes.
That is one of the biggest lies that we have been spinning to tourists since the early days of Florida.
I was sitting at a local Starbucks, wasting time, when I heard two people talk about Orlando’s alligator attack. One of them wondered out loud what an alligator was doing up in the Orlando area. The other one chimed in, “It was probably someone’s pet, and Disney should have done something about it.”
“It’s Florida, it’s a body of freshwater, there is going to be a gator in it,” I said. Both people looked confused, and the one said, “But it’s up in Orlando. Alligators don’t live there; it isn’t a swamp.”
I said again, “It’s Florida, it’s a body of freshwater, there is going to be a gator,”
The two of them looked at me oddly, and I said to them. “You are not from Florida, are you?”
I wasn’t too surprised when the answer was no.
Living in what some would consider paradise, there are four things that bring it down. Flying cockroaches, mosquitoes, hurricanes, and gators, in that order.
Since gators don’t rank very high on a Floridian scale on what we considered dangerous or unpleasant, it is a wonder that most people think we are nuts when it comes to our laissez-faire attitude about gators. The truth is, we learn to live with them.
I am going to let you on to a couple of gator secrets that will make your next trip to the Sunshine State a safe one.
Tip 1: The minutes you cross the state borders, YOU ARE IN GATOR COUNTRY!
Jacksonville – Gator country
Orlando – Gator country
Tampa- Gator country
Key West- Gator Country
Miami – Gator Country
St. Petersburg – Gator Country
Any town, golf course, village, retirement community, tourist trap, small town, farm – Gator country
Gainesville – The capital of Gator country.
Tip 2: Floridians have a love/hate relationship with the gator
When you’re from Florida, you are either a Cane, a Nole, or Gator. That is how we Floridian classifies ourselves.
We don’t think it is strange to see a gator out on the golf course or lounging by the side of the road. And we usually have one news story a night about a gator in a pool. They are here to stay.
Tip 3: The Gator Test
All you have to do is ask these two questions.
- Is the body of water fresh?
- Is the body of water in Florida?
If you answer yes to both of these questions, then there is a gator nearby, in it, or around it. If one of them is no, then it is up to debate whether there is a gator or not.
By the way, a gator cannot be removed until it reaches at least 4 feet. Then they are hard and expensive to catch, so more communities and parks don’t bother until it becomes a nuisance.
Tip 4: Don’t feed them
For some reason, tourists think it is a good idea to feed them. But what tourists don’t realize is that alligators have a natural fear of us, and by feeding them, they start associating us with food. And that is never good.
When they lose that natural fear of humans and decided that they will get lunch from us one way or another, it becomes a problem. If you happened to see one out in the wild, take a picture of it, but don’t give it your ham sandwich.
There is enough wildlife in Florida that our gator population will not go hungry.
Tip 5: Gators don’t make good pets
One of the funniest (or saddest) things I read in my grandmother’s diary was about a trip to Florida when she was young. She talked about how you could buy baby pet gators from the side of the road, and her father wouldn’t buy one because it might eat his prize Kio. Smart man.
I wonder how many gators end up being flushed down the toilets or let go in Central Park in the 30s and 40s. Maybe the rumor about alligators in the New York sewer is true.
No, gators aren’t cute, and they don’t like to be cuddled. They want to be left alone. If you really want a gator, stop by one of the local tourist stores and get the cute and cuddly ones that are stuffed with cotton. Less money, fewer headaches, and you wouldn’t lose a limb.
Tip 6: Swimming in freshwater is never a good idea
Growing up in Florida, that was the one thing that was stressed over and over again. Never swim in a fresh body of water unless you can see the bottom. Gators love to hide in the muck. Most of us check our pool before diving in, and yes, I have had a gator in my pool before.
I have a hard time swimming in a freshwater lake even when I was in Hawaii. And to the amusement of the locals, I kept asking, “Are you sure there aren’t any gators in there.” They laugh, but when it has been ingrained in you since early childhood that any freshwater, whether it be here or on an island out in the middle of the Pacific, should have a gator in it, you will question it too.
Because the idea of freshwater without a gator just boggles the mind.
Tip 7: Gators are not cold-blooded murder
A gator will attack humans for two reasons. Reason one is that we threaten them or their nest in some way. Reason two is that they are hungry and started to associate us with food (thanks a lot tourist).
So as long as you leave a gator alone and don’t feed it, the chances of you get attacked are slim. I have lived here for 40 years, and not once have I been attacked. Almost eaten, but never attached.
Tip 8: If it is saltwater, you are probably safe from gators, but sharks and crocodiles are another story.
That is another post for another day.
Tip 9: If you want to see a gator in the wild, be safe.
Every year, we hear about tourists getting lost or killed out in the Everglades. If you have a desire to see a gator out in the wild, then be safe. Either go to a park that offers airboat rides or go to a place where it has gators at a safe distance.
I encourage everyone who visits Florida to take an airboat ride.
Tip 10: Gator meat
Yes, you can eat gator, and yes, it kind of tastes like chicken. There are some bars and local hangouts that serve fresh gator meat. Ask a local; they can probably point you in a direction to one of the many places in Florida to get gator tail.
Tip 12: Keep small, medium, and large kids and dogs away from a body of freshwater.
Gators love small prey, whether it be a duck, a turtle, or your dog. It is never a good idea to let either your kids or your dog go swimming in a fresh body of water that isn’t either a pool or a natural spring (it’s too cold for a gator).
Most Floridians know someone who lost a dog to a gator.
So there you have it, a Floridian guide to being safe around gators. To recap, don’t go near one, assume any body of freshwater in Florida has a gator in it, don’t feed them, and don’t try to make it a pet.
I hope your next trip to Florida is a happy and safe one.