Columns

2017.02.08 Heading for Florida? Hope you like gators

By RICH FOLEY

This is the time of year when Florida starts to look like a great destination for many. Whether that’s because of spring break for college students, getting away from winter weather for retirees, or some other reason, the Sunshine State seems like a dream spot for travelers. Unless, that is, you have a great fear of alligators.

I’m not talking about ordinary alligators. There seems to be a recent trend toward huge gators that are longer than your car. A possible explanation is both good and bad news. Good news for the alligators, but for people afraid of the reptiles, really bad news.

 Since alligators were added to the endangered species list in 1973, some that used to be killed by hunters are now living longer. Since they keep growing until they die, the older the gator, the bigger the gator. And that seems to be exactly what is happening.

Back in September, Time magazine ran a photo of a huge alligator on a golf course near the Florida town of Palmetto. It was estimated to be a whopping 15 feet long. Supposedly, a gator killed in Alabama in 2014, measured at 14 feet, 9.25 inches, holds the record for longest verified alligator. That doesn’t stop unsubstantiated claims.

Another Florida gator, assumed to be 40 to 50 years old, was spotted earlier this month in Polk County. Estimates for it are also in the 15-foot range, or longer, depending on the source.

An Australian biologist was quoted in one report as saying that the average male American alligator is four meters (about 13 feet) long and that there are some  measuring “well over five meters.” That converts to 16.4 feet plus whatever you want to add for that “well over” part. But should we be asking an expert who lives on the other side of the planet? I know they have biologists in Florida.

Even smaller alligators are finding their way into the news, some in very unusual places. For instance, in Florida’s Palm Beach County in October 2015, a person threw a 3.5-foot alligator through the drive-thru window of a Wendy’s Restaurant after receiving his order. Four months later, a 24-year-old man was arrested after he was identified with the help of security footage.

He was initially charged with multiple felonies, including assault with a deadly weapon, namely, the alligator. Later, he pled guilty to lesser charges, telling the judge he had found the gator along the road and that throwing it was a “stupid stunt.” At least he was right about that. Luckily for the alligator, Florida wildlife officials removed it from Wendy’s and relocated it into the wild.

Also in Florida, a woman is fighting to keep her pet alligator, who not only has his own bedroom, but wears clothes and rides on the back of a motorcycle. It might be worth a road trip to Florida just to see that.

The Lakeland woman has a license for the pet, named Rambo, and has had him for 11 years. He recently reached the length of six feet, which now requires his owner, Mary Thorn, to provide him with 2.5 acres of living space. I wonder how big his bedroom is.

Thorn told her local newspaper that not only does she not have that much land available, Rambo couldn’t be left outside anyway because he’s sensitive to sunlight. Does he wear sunglasses on his motorcycle rides? A road trip is sounding better and better.

A bit north of Florida in the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City, another six-foot gator known as “Flat Creek Floyd” is becoming famous as people insist on taking selfies with him as he suns himself on Flat Creek. No one has been hurt so far, but I’m sure the police are amazed that they have to spend time warning the public not to feed or take photos with him. Then again, that may not surprise them at all.

Really close to home, a 2015 drug raid at a house in Defiance found, among other things, a three foot long alligator in the bathtub. The Fort Defiance Humane Society took it in while plans were made to send it to a Florida wildlife preserve. I hope they gave him his own bathtub.

That’s all the alligator news I have room for this week. I now need to firm up plans for a trip south. When word of that sunglasses-wearing, motorcycle-riding alligator gets out, there may be a crowd heading to Lakeland.