Not Gatorland World

I was going to post an article about the 1st Amendment this week -- and maybe that one will make an appearance next Saturday -- but something came along and changed everything.

*Our sister channel, 2 Grumpy People recorded a response to this tragedy. This article extends the thoughts expressed in that video

 

While most of America is talking about the horrible events at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, residents of Kissimmee, Florida have another tragedy to contend with. Helicopters hover overhead, but they aren't looking for terrorists. As the rescue personnel swarm in, the white tents go up on manicured lawns and the news cameras are thrust into the faces of staff and guests of the happiest place on Earth. Today is not happy. Two nights ago, a two-year-old child was snatched from the beach while he played under the watchful eyes of his parents. He wasn't taken by a pedophile, and there is no hope of finding him alive in an abandoned military facility. This toddler has fallen victim to a predator whose ancestry goes back to a time before humans existed.
 

Still of Grand Floridian in more peaceful times, from B-Roll of Resorts at Walt Disney World in Florida 

Still of Grand Floridian in more peaceful times, from B-Roll of Resorts at Walt Disney World in Florida 

Already the criticisms and accusations have begun. Lane Graves was on the white sand beach of the manmade Seven Seas Lagoon that connects the Magic Kingdom and two of its premier resorts, the Polynesian, and the Grand Floridian, where the tragedy occurred. Others had been present on the beach that evening, as the resort was hosting a movie night. Beach chairs and loungers were scattered about as usual. The parents, according to some people who had been on the beach earlier, were allowing their child to wade in the shallow water at the edge of the lagoon. Other reports were that the child was on the beach and not in the water. It would make very little difference to the gator. The six to seven foot alligator would have been all but invisible in the darkness and the murky water. It was able to lunge and snatch the child, while the parents watched, helpless. First the father, and then the mother tried to wrest the child from the gator's mouth, without success. The father, who tried to pry open those powerful jaws, received lacerations on his hands for his effort. Although not seriously wounded, it would be wrong to describe him as "fine". How does one cope with the loss of one's child under such circumstances? It is almost unimaginable. While comparisons to the recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo may seem inviting, there are some pretty significant differences. Primarily, this child did not survive the ordeal.


These parents were not in violation of any rule, as police and Disney officials have pointed out. The posted signs said No Swimming, but did not bar wading and did not warn of alligators. Nor were they negligent, no matter what some internet commenters may assert. Attacking them won't bring back their child, nor make other children safer. And while they are not to blame for what happened, we may be able to gleen from their experience a few safety lessons to prevent future tragedies of the same type. Nothing in what I am about to write is intended in any way to be an indictment of these parents, or a criticism of Walt Disney World Resorts. 


Why does Disney allow alligators in their park?

Alligators are omnipresent in the Florida everglades, marshlands, and swamps. In fact, the alligator is the official state reptile of Florida! They more than occasionally make their presence known by taking up residence in pools, irrigation ditches and anywhere fresh water can be found. Gators are not a new sight on Walt Disney World property. They've been sighted near the Magic Kingdom's Railroad, in Bay Lake, and in the Seven Seas Lagoon. WDW personnel work hand in hand with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and local licensed nuisance trappers to track the reptiles and move potential trouble makers out of guest areas. Any gator longer than four feet is deemed a potential danger, and is relocated.

Alligators are natural to that environment. They were there first, you might say. Well, let's look realistically at the problem. WDW sits on about 30,000 acres of Florida swampland. The amusement park and resorts take up only a small part of that at 1,100 acres (though it is forever growing). -WDWradio.com  When Disney bought the land and got permission to build, part of the deal required they set aside 7,500 acres as a nature preserve and wild life habitat. Disney has long supported conservation efforts and has tried to keep as much of the natural  world as possible undisturbed for future enjoyment. They've even been part of an alligator breeding and conservation effort. Visitors to EPCOT's Living With the Land attraction are treated to views of baby alligators basking under lights in the safety of their glass tanks in the Aquacell. Gators are a part of the ecology of the area. Hunting them to extinction, even only within WDW's footprint would cause massive upset in the ecology of the area, and in any case, would be illegal. Now, gators are not endangered anymore, but they are considered "threatened" and have been on the endangered species list in the past. They can be hunted, within specific limits. So killing a few who become aggressive wouldn't be the end of the world. It just wouldn't be very effective, and not a good idea. That's why they are usually just relocated. You may have heard that several alligators have been trapped and killed following the incident at the resort. That was in an attempt to recover the remains of the child. 
 

Alligators on African Safari Tour at Animal Kingdom

Alligators on African Safari Tour at Animal Kingdom

Juvenile alligators in the Living With The Land attraction at EPCOT

Juvenile alligators in the Living With The Land attraction at EPCOT

Gators are natural predators

Alligators are very long lived. Most American alligators live to about fifty years. Some can live even longer. They don't reach sexual maturity until about twelve years old, when they are about six feet long. So the alligators relocated by Disney and the Fish and Game Department are usually still juveniles. Adult females usually reach eight or nine feet in length, while males can get up to about twelve feet. Some rare giants have reached fourteen feet, while crocodiles are known to grow to twenty feet or more. So they are not the largest members of the crocodylian order. But make no mistake, they are deadly. Earlier this month a crocodile was discovered with a dead body still in its mouth. The deceased turned out to be 72-year-old Richard Zachary Taylor. That alligator was between eight and nine feet long. So a gator doesn't have to reach its full potential to be deadly, even to grown ups. But humans are not the usual prey for alligators who prefer their natural diet of frogs, fish, and small animals like beavers and the occasional dog. 

Alligators are related to crocodiles. And crocodiles are not short on reputation for deadly attacks either. The crocodylian order, of which gators, caiman, and crocs are the only living members, save one lonely Gavialide, the Indian Gharial, is a short bush of a family tree, but it has long roots. Purussaurus brasiliensis was an extinct caiman, themselves close relatives of alligators. The Purussaurus brasiliensis lived about eight million years ago in South America, during the Miocene epoch. Lucky for us, they aren't around anymore. These bruisers were up to forty feet long and hunted much the way modern crocodiles and gators do. But there are even older relatives. Sarcosuchus Imperator or "Flesh Crocodile Emperor", was just as long, and lived 110 million years ago. This monster ate dinosaurs. Looking at the fossilized bones and skull of the crocodile emperor, you see the ancestor of alligators and you realize that 11o million years of evolution haven't dulled this hunter's instincts. While modern crocodilians may have been shrunken over time, they are just as tough, just as deadly. They are the spear point of 110 million plus years of carnivore development. You will not breed that out of him. You can't tame an alligator. Feeding them chickens in Gator Land doesn't make them any less likely to take off your hand, or to drag you under for a final death roll. They are survivors. In fact, no one threatened the alligator in his natural habitat for thousands of years. He had no competition. He was the top of the food chain... until man came along. 

Since 1973 there have been 23 fatal attacks, and many more non-fatal attacks or bites. And while that's a lot, it's nothing compared to the history of alligator attacks in the state. Francisco Pizarro was among the first white men to learn about the deadly reptiles while traveling through South and Central America in search of conquest and gold, he wrote of losing several men to alligators. These were trained fighting men, conquistadors, traveling together and well armed. But humans fight back. What dinosaurs and every manner of carnivore for millions of years couldn't do, man could do in a couple centuries. Unlimited hunting and trapping for the prized skins decimated the Florida alligator population. Alligators are also hunted for meat and sport. Since the 80s alligators have been protected, first under the endangered species act, and then through controlled hunting and trapping regulated and enforced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Man was not satisfied with hunting this ancient monster to extinction. They've also imported Burmese pythons, not native to Florida, which now threaten the native gators on their home turf, the waters of the everglades. This invasive species is decimating mammal populations in the everglades, possibly out competing alligators for prey. 

But we love alligators.

No, really. They are terrifying, no doubt. But alligators and their cousins, crocodiles, are beloved creatures in our culture. Don't believe me? Remember this Disney song? The lyrics were cut from the Peter Pan, but the song has proven popular on albums and in sing-along videos. It's even featured as part of the musical accompaniment to the Magic Kingdom's Hallowishes Parade.

Still from Disney's Peter Pan, Walt Disney 1953

Still from Disney's Peter Pan, Walt Disney 1953

Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can't get friendly with a crocodile
Don't be taken in by his welcome grin
He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin
Never smile at a crocodile
Never tip your hat and stop to talk awhile
Never run, walk away, say good-night, not good-day
Clear the aisle but never smile at Mister Crocodile

You may very well be well bred
Lots of etiquette in your head
But there's always some special case, time or place
to forget etiquette
 

Fastpass entrance at Peter Pan's Flight in Walt Disney World, Florida

Fastpass entrance at Peter Pan's Flight in Walt Disney World, Florida

Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can't get friendly with a crocodile
Don't be taken in by his welcome grin
He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin
Never smile at a crocodile
Never tip your hat and stop to talk awhile
Never run, walk away, say good-night, not good-day Clear the aisle but never smile at Mister Crocodile

 

Then there are, of course, also these characters.

Louis, the jazz playing alligator from The Princess and the Frog, Walt Disney, 2009

Louis, the jazz playing alligator from The Princess and the Frog, Walt Disney, 2009

Float with Hippo, alligator, and ostrich from Walt Disney's Fantasia, Walt Disney, 1940

And it isn't just cute little animated characters in film, either. When I stayed at Disney's Port Orleans Riverside Resort, we took a room in their Alligator Bayou section. It was quaint and homey, with plenty of warnings about swimming in the Sassagoula River. 

Copyright PS Wright and Splot!Publishing 2009

 

Still not convinced? Well, visitors to the Magic Kingdom have been spotting these "alligators" for decades.

A pair of artificial alligators are much safer for Walt Disney World Railroad passengers.

A pair of artificial alligators are much safer for Walt Disney World Railroad passengers.

Alligators abound at Disney parks. So much so, it might be hard to avoid references to Florida's official reptile. From the Jungle Cruise, to Animal Kingdom's Tree of life, and Jingle Jungle Parade, representations abound.

Carving of alligator on the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom

Carving of alligator on the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom

Jingle Jungle Parade in Animal Kingdom

 
Return raft, or crocodile eat you!

Return raft, or crocodile eat you!

And it isn't just Disney, in case you were wondering. Here's a friendly little croc at an amusement park in New York called Darien Lake, which has never seen an alligator or crocodile, I'm sure. They even have an entire section of their water park called Crocodile Island. You can't make this stuff up. BTW, it's a nice little park. If you use a wheel chair, avoid the steel roller coaster that is definitely not the Man of Steel.

Immediately after the attacks, there were reports that Disney Parks were changing the spiel at the Jungle Cruise to remove a particular joke that may have come across as less than sensitive. That's actually very reasonable, but removing the joke does nothing to change our cultural love of these ancient predators, or the failure of tourists and guests to take seriously the risks. Other changes they are considering include adding alligator warnings to their current No Swimming signage. For now, the beaches are closed and they aren't renting boats. When the beaches open back up, and new tourists flood in, will they take the risk seriously? With that in mind, allow me to offer a few brief bits of safety advice.

 

How do I stay safe?

  • Stay out of natural bodies of fresh water in Florida. Experts have said repeatedly that every body of water in Florida has at least one alligator in it. Yes, that includes all of the lakes and rivers and canals on Disney property. 
  • If you can't see the bottom, you can't see if there is a gator, so stay out. Gators are hard to see anyway, with their green and grey skin that blends into the natural environment. They usually are submerged with only their eyes or eyes and snout visible. Even when their whole body breaks the surface, they tend to resemble floating logs.
  • Always look before you enter any water, even the Hippy Dippy Pool or Old Man Island.
Old Man Island Pool at Port Orleans Riverside Resort, Walt Disney World, Florida

Old Man Island Pool at Port Orleans Riverside Resort, Walt Disney World, Florida

  • If you see a baby or juvenile gator, assume there's a mommy right around the bend. Juveniles tend to stay near their parents until older males push them out or they reach sexual maturity. And mother gators can be downright testy about people messing with their youngins. 
  • Never poke a gator with a stick. Gators are fast and flexible. You will not be able to get away if you manage to actually get it's ire up. Leave sleeping gators to lie.
  • Never ever feed gators in the wild... esp. by hand. Feeding wild gators removes their fear of humans, which leads to more attacks. And feeding by hand is just asking to earn the name, Yeoman Hook. (You gotta earn the captaincy.)
  • All alligators bite. Don't assume because it's too little to kill you, that it won't take off a chunk of your flesh. And not only does it hurt and possibly leave you with fewer piggies to count on, infections are not uncommon. Do you really want to spend your vacation in the emergency room?
  • Don't assume because you are on shore, in a boat, on a bridge, or in a crowded area that you are 100% safe. Gators have occasionally attacked in all those situations. Maintain situational awareness and always keep an eye toward the shore line of any body of water.
  • If a gator is out of the water, leave it alone. Stay well back, at least 12 feet at a minimum. Gators are not slow, as many people assume. They can run between 25 and 40 miles per hour. They can also whip their head and tail around to knock you down.  Report any gators larger than four feet. If you're on Disney property, you might want to go ahead and just report any gator you see. Let the staff decide if it poses a danger.
  • Never let children play near the water's edge, keep them at your side and at least 6 to 12 feet from the shoreline of murky or dark water. A rule of thumb is to make sure you are closer than the water's edge is, to your child. Make sure you tell children about the danger. Sometimes kids try to pet, feed, or play with small alligators.
  • Do your swimming in a pool, not natural bodies of water. Most alligator attack victims were in the water with the gators when they were killed. If a gator is lurking nearby, don't go in the pool. They can swim lots faster than you can, and are champions at holding their breathe. The water is their turf. 
Don't swim here. Caribbean Beach Resort beach

Don't swim here. Caribbean Beach Resort beach

Swim here. Caribbean Beach Resort pool and slide

Swim here. Caribbean Beach Resort pool and slide

  • If a gator has a small child in its grasp, try not to let it get into the water. Grabbing it by the tail has sometimes worked. Shout for help. Blow a whistle. Get help, as much as possible. Gators are very strong and they have vice-like jaws.
  • If you are in the jaws of a gator, try poking it in the eyes and hitting it on the top of the head and snout. These are general recommendations of people who wrangle gators. I don't wrangle gators. I try not to get in a position where they can get me in their jaws. I have no idea if this actually works.
  • If in a small boat, and a gator approaches, chases, or attacks, head for the shore while calling for help. Make noise, blow your horn, rev your engine, get the attention of others who might assist. Don't try to outrun a gator unless you are in a boat equipped for high speeds. Personal watercraft will not outrun a gator, and they can easily tip it over. Get to shore! Keep the craft between you and the gator. That may mean angling the craft to come alongside the dock or shoreline, rather than nosing in. Oh, and wear a flotation device. They've saved more than one victim.
My son boating in a personal watercraft on the Sassagoula River, Port Orleans Resorts, Walt Disney World, Florida

My son boating in a personal watercraft on the Sassagoula River, Port Orleans Resorts, Walt Disney World, Florida

  • Don't cook out or picnic at the water's edge. The smell of food may entice a gator that would otherwise not bother you. Gators are primarily meat eaters, but have been known to eat nearly anything.
  • Never dangle your legs or hands over the side of the boat or into the water. That's just like trolling for alligators. Do you want to go through life being called Stumpy? Then don't do that.
  • Don't walk small dogs, or other small pets, near bodies of water or marshlands.
  • Alligators can climb fences and trees. Don't assume a fence means no alligators.
  • Gators are not the only predators or dangerous wildlife in Florida. Pythons, water moccasins/cotton mouths and many other dangerous snakes reside in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, especially. If you see a snake, don't assume it is harmless. Leave it alone and notify a staff member or law enforcement. They'll know who to call. Be mindful of the danger before reaching for or picking up sticks, particularly if floating. Snakes are often mistaken for sticks. Snakes often sun themselves on rocks or tree limbs at the edge of the water. 

I hope this article has helped in any way. Here's the thing. These parents were not to blame. Disney was not to blame. The alligator was not to blame. And the child was not to blame. Sometimes, nature does terrible things. Despite this tragedy, there is no reason to fear going to Disney, or to Florida. Being alert to your surroundings, taking the time to find out what the danger is, and following all safety precautions will go a long way toward ensuring your safety and making sure Walt Disney World remains the happiest place on Earth for your family. Alligators are fantastic beasts, like living dragons. But like dragons, they can be dangerous and are best not crossed. Enjoy nature safely, and be well.