While alligator attacks are a relatively rare occurrence, the disappearance of a 2-year-old boy dragged into the water in Orlando on Tuesday night has raised new concerns about avoiding the massive reptiles.
"Overall, the risk is low," says David Steen, assistant research professor at Auburn University. But it's important to be aware of the prevalence of alligators in regions like Florida, where alligator populations had once decreased due to the leather trade, but have now recovered thanks to conservation efforts. "I would assume any body of water has an alligator in it in Florida," says Steen—he'd even check swimming pools before getting in.
"You don’t want to be too close to the water’s edge, crouching down, which might make you look like a potential prey item," Steen says. "Don’t walk your dogs next to the water’s edge."
"And probably one of the most important things is don’t feed alligators," he adds. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (FWC) agrees: "If they’re fed," said Executive Director Nick Wiley in a press conference on Wednesday, "the alligators can lose their fear of people." That's one reason why feeding alligators is illegal in the state of Florida.
So should people avoid swimming in lakes, rivers and ponds in Florida altogether? "That's a personal choice," Steen says. "You know, there are sharks in the ocean, but I still go swimming in there. So it’s something that everybody should just keep in the back of the mind." That said, if large alligators have been spotted in an area, "I’m not gonna be swimming in it," he adds.
The FWC also advises against swimming outside of daylight hours, as alligators are most active between dusk and dawn.
It's unclear what went wrong in the current case in Orlando, since "people aren’t the typical prey item for alligators," Steen says. "It’s such a rare event that you can almost consider it a freak occurrence, and I don’t really want to victim-blame because these things are so unusual and unpredictable." Still, he thinks it's important for people "to learn about the natural landscape where they’re visiting, and the local area has a responsibility to help make sure that folks are reasonably informed."
If an alligator does appear in any body of water near you or your child, the best advice is simple: "Get away."
And if the alligator attacks, the FWC's advice is to get aggressive. "If an alligator bites you, the best thing you can do is fight back, making as much noise and commotion as possible. Hitting or kicking the alligator, or poking it in its eyes may cause it to release its grip. When alligators seize prey they cannot easily overpower, they will often let go and retreat."
Alligator bites should be treated immediately, as they can result in severe infection.