Alligator attacks: How often do they happen?

ORLANDO, Fla. — While the thought of an alligator attack is terrifying, it is not a very common occurrence. Gators generally do not attack humans for a number of reasons, but mainly because we are simply too large for gators to deal with.

Attacks are rare

Since 1948, there have been 401 documented alligator bites in the Florida. Of that number, 23 have been fatal attacks. Florida is a prime habitat for alligators. Wildlife officials believe there are more than a million of the animals in the state.

Most human bites are not the result of an alligator being aggressive, but rather of an alligator going after what it considers prey. Alligators are opportunistic feeders and will eat what is easy for them to get. Humans generally do not fall into that category.

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Gators normally only go after prey they can easily overpower. Opportunity is the key, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Why do they bite, then?

Alligators seldom bite people unless they are looking for food. Other reasons for bites include aggression from mating males, or females protecting their nests.

When alligators do bite, it generally happens in or at the water’s edge. They often  lunge at prey within a few feet of the shoreline.

How to avoid being bitten

Here are a few tips from the FWC to keep in mind if you are near fresh or brackish water:

• Closely supervise children when they are playing in or around water. Never allow small children to play unsupervised near water.

• Do not swim outside of posted swimming areas or in waters that might be inhabited by large alligators.

• Alligators are most active between dusk and dawn. Therefore, swim only during daylight hours.

• Do not allow pets to swim, exercise or drink in or near waters that may contain alligators or in designated swimming areas with humans.

• Never feed or entice alligators – it is dangerous, and in Florida, it's illegal. When fed, alligators overcome their natural wariness and associate people with food.

• Dispose of fish scraps in garbage cans at boat ramps and fish camps – do not throw them in the water.

• Observe and photograph alligators only from a safe distance.

• Leave alligators alone. State law prohibits killing, harassing or possession of alligators except under permit.

• Never remove an alligator from its natural habitat or accept one as a pet. It is illegal.

• 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.

• Seek immediate medical attention if bitten by an alligator. Alligator bites often result in serious infection.

Gator facts

What part of the country do gators favor?

Gators call a wide swath of the Southeast and portions of the Southwest home.

What habitat do they favor?

Mostly non-moving fresh water – small rivers, creeks, and swamps.

How strong are they?

Even a relatively small alligator has relatively large jaws that can clamp down on something with the force of  more than 2,000 pounds per square inch, or psi. In comparison, a human can clamp down on food at a force of 150 psi.

Gator myths

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences provides a fact sheet with some common myths about alligators:

Myth #1. You should run zigzag if you come across an alligator.

This is a common misconception. First, it is rare for an alligator to pursue a human because humans are too large to be suitable prey. However, if an alligator does make an aggressive charge, run fast and straight away from the alligator. They usually do not run very far. But remember they are most likely to charge at you if you are near their nest.

Myth #2. Alligators have poor eyesight.

Alligators actually have very good eyesight, which is important for hunting. They are especially adapted to see and sense movement of potential prey animals. The position of their eyes on their head (almost on the side) gives them a wide sight range. The only place they cannot see is directly behind them.

Myth #3. Alligators are not good climbers.

Alligators have sharp claws and powerful tails to help them push their bodies up. Young alligators are agile climbers and adults have been known to climb fences to get to water or escape captivity. Low fences, therefore, may not be sufficient protection for pets in areas where alligators are present. Fences should be more than 4.5 feet tall if you are attempting to keep alligators out of your yard.

Myth #4. Alligators make good pets.

No, they don't. Although baby alligators may seem like a cool pet, it is illegal to possess or take an alligator without the proper licenses and permits from the FWC. The average size for an adult female alligator is 8.2 feet. Males can grow to 11.2 feet long. Males can weigh up to 1,000 pounds – or nearly half a ton.