What to do if you come face-to-face with an alligator

Tips for gator safety in the Sunshine State

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Alligator attacks are extremely rare, but they can still happen.

There have been 442 recorded alligator attacks as of 2021 in Florida since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began keeping records back in 1948, meaning you have a higher chance of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a gator.

But they still happen, as evidenced by an 85-year-old woman who was killed by an alligator while walking her dog.

So what should you do if you find one of these behemoths in the wild? Read below to learn about some tips by experts.

Leave it alone

The most effective way to avoid tangling with an alligator is to avoid it entirely.

According to the University of Florida, the following tips can lower your risk of encountering alligators.

  • Don’t feed wild alligators (it’s illegal): It can make the gators associate humans with food and lose their natural fear of people.
  • Don’t throw fish scraps in trash cans: Such scraps can unintentionally attract gators looking for an easy snack.
  • Follow directions on signs: Don’t go swimming anywhere outside of posted swimming areas.
  • Swim during daylight hours: Alligators are most active at night, so daytime is probably a safer option.
  • Keep an eye on children and pets: Never allow small children to play unattended near the water and avoid letting your pets too close to the shoreline, as they may resemble the reptiles’ natural prey.

Anyone with concerns about alligators encroaching on their yards can install a fence that’s at least 4.5 feet long. The university said that anything lower will likely not be able to keep them out, as gators can be effective climbers.

In an interview, Dr. Frank Mazzotti — a professor of wildlife ecology with the University of Florida — told News 6 that if you’re living near water, it’s best to assume there’s an alligator nearby.

“I would say pretty much any body of water, assume there’s an alligator there and behave cautiously, behave carefully, and be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “Because what precipitates almost all incidents is people showing up next to the water.”

Run away in a straight line

This advice may be the most obvious, but the best means to defend yourself is to run away from an alligator should you find one.

According to Mazzotti, the trick is getting away as fast as possible. Contrary to popular belief, you should try to run away in a straight line and not in a zig-zag pattern, Mazzotti said.

He explained that alligators have a four-chambered heart that allows them to sprint for short distances, though they can’t do so for long, meaning that going the farthest distance in the shortest amount of time can help secure your survival.

“The idea is that if you run in a zig-zag, the alligator can’t find you,” Mazzotti said. “Well, the reality is alligators defend their territory, and that territory has an end... The quicker you get away from that alligator in a straight line, the safer you’re going to be.”

A straight line away from a gator isn’t just the fastest route, either; it may also happen to be in the gator’s blind spot, according to Wild Florida.

If an alligator is attacking because you trespassed into its territory, then it likely just wants to chase you off, not hunt you down.

Fight back

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where a gator’s managed to sink its teeth into you, then you likely aren’t going to be able to run away.

In that case, the FWC suggests you fight back, though you likely shouldn’t try to pry the jaws open, as gators tend to have a very powerful bite force.

“If an alligator bites you, the best thing to do is fight back, providing as much noise and resistance as possible,” the FWC said in a release. “Hitting or kicking the alligator or poking it in the eyes may cause it to release its grip. When alligators seize prey they cannot easily overpower, they will often let go and retreat.”

Mazzotti agreed with the advice, adding that there are other things you can do to help ensure your getaway.

“Stick your hand all the way down its throat, make you gag. Lots of times, after you are grabbed by an alligator, there is a time when the alligator releases its grip to reposition,” Mazzotti said. “That gives you an opportunity to escape, but really, do everything that you can within your power and your proximity to be on that alligator because your life depends on it.”

That being said, the FWC also states that it’s against state law to kill or harass an alligator without a permit, so the best course of action is to leave them alone if you’re able.

Furthermore, the FWC advises that anyone who suffers an alligator bite seek immediate medical attention, as such bites can often result in serious infection.

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About the Author:

Anthony, a graduate of the University of Florida, joined ClickOrlando.com in April 2022.