Expert Commentary

Alligator fatal attacks and encounters with humans: Historical data and research

2005 report in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine that looks at the prevalence and characteristics of alligator attacks on humans in the U.S. from 1948 to 2004.

(Pixabay/public domain)

Reports of a Florida alligator dragging a 2-year-old boy into a lagoon at a Disney Resort in June 2016 have left media organizations and the public questioning how such a tragedy could have occurred. Meanwhile, state wildlife officials and animal experts have tried to explain the habits and characteristics of these large, predatory creatures to help audiences understand both the rarity of such an encounter and the dangers of humans being in or near gator habitats at night and during the summer, when alligators are more active.

A 2014 primer from the University of Florida provides a research-based overview of alligator behavior and outlines safety-related information. Academic research can also help put attacks and related incidents into a broader context. A 2005 study published in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, “Alligator Attacks on Humans in the United States,” reviews data gathered from state wildlife offices and newspaper reports from 1948 to 2004. The author, Ricky L. Langley of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, notes the following about the nature of attacks:

Alligators are not generally aggressive toward humans, but aberrant behavior may occur. Smaller alligators usually bite only once; however, up to one third of attacks may involve repeated bites. Serious and repeated attacks usually are made by alligators over 8 feet in length and are probably attributed to chase and feeding behavior. Female alligators will defend their nest and young. Alligators quickly become conditioned to people, especially when food is involved. These food-habituated alligators lose their fear of humans and can be very dangerous to an unsuspecting person.

The study’s findings include:

  • “As of August 1, 2004, various sources reported 376 cases of alligator bites to have occurred and been documented in the United States since 1948 (Table 1). Deaths were reported in 23 cases, but wounds from alligator attacks in 8 of these cases may have been postmortem.”
  • The state of Florida had the most comprehensive data available: “Florida officials provided detailed data on 305 nonfatal cases from a total of 334 cases. The average age of the victims (287 cases with reported age) was 34.3 years with a range from 3 to 82 years. Males were attacked in 257 cases (85.4 percent) and females in 44 cases (14.6 percent).”
  • The activities of victims at the time of attack in the Florida cases were distributed as follows: 17.4 percent were related to trying to capture/pick up/exhibit the animal; 16.7 percent involved swimming; 9.9 percent involved fishing; 9.5 percent related to retrieving golf balls; and 5.3 percent involved wading/walking in water.

“Actions to be avoided include allowing small children to approach bodies of water that may be inhabited by alligators,” Langley concludes, “swimming outside posted swimming areas; swimming at dawn, dusk, or nighttime when alligators most actively feed; feeding or enticing alligators; throwing fish scraps into the water or leaving them on shore; allowing pets to swim in waters not known to be free of alligators; and removing alligators from their natural habitat or accepting one as a pet.”

Langley updated his dataset in a follow-up 2009 paper, “Adverse Encounters With Alligators in the United States: An Update,” and found the following: “There have been 567 reports of adverse encounters with alligators with 24 deaths reported in the United States from 1928 to January 1, 2009. In addition, thousands of nuisance calls are made yearly and the number of nuisance calls as well as the alligator population is increasing in many states.” Further, the researcher notes: “The larger the alligator, the more likely that serious injury will occur. As the human population encroaches on the habitat of the alligator, attacks and nuisance complaints will continue to occur.”

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