Can you outrun an alligator, and other myths explained

In some parts of the United States, Florida in particular, it is not uncommon to see an alligator walking down the road.

The Sunshine State affords the perfect climate for alligators – fresh water and lots of warm weather. And while seeing an alligator in Florida’s greater outdoors isn’t that unusual, it seems that encounters with the reptiles are on the rise in other places as well.

Interactions with alligators seems to be more common, leaving some to wonder why the usually private animals are making the rounds.

There are two main reasons, experts in wildlife say, that we are encountering the animals more often. First, we’re encroaching on their habitat. Second, at certain times of the year, alligators are out looking for love, so to speak.

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Here's what you need to know about the alligator and his home, along with some tips to keep some distance between you and the animals.

What’s love got to do with it?

Mating season for alligators happens from mid-April through May. Male alligators, like males of other species, have been known to cruise areas looking for females. A gator looking for love has been known to end up visiting human homes near his natural habitat.

Not all males are on the prowl.

Since larger gators are apt to eat smaller ones – remember, an alligator is pretty much an eating machine – the gators one sees strolling in neighborhoods or trying out Jacuzzis on someone's deck are likely juvenile or young adult gators. They are more likely just trying to get away from larger gators.

What part of the country do gators favor?

Gators call a wide swath of the Southeast and portions of the Southwest home. The gator caught on tape appearing to ring the doorbell was in South Carolina. The ones visiting friends at the apartment complex was in Cocoa, Florida.

One of the biggest factors in the increase of human-to-gator contact is encroachment on their habitat. More houses are being built near places gators have called home for hundreds of years. If your home is built next to theirs, don't be surprised if you get a visit. They were there first.

What habitat do they favor?

Mostly non-moving fresh water – small rivers, creeks, swamps. However, that doesn't mean the occasional alligator won't take up digs in brackish or even salt water.

What do you do if one drops in?

This probably shouldn’t have to be said, but don’t get near it. 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. In comparison, a human can clamp down on an extra-large pizza with the works at a force of 150 psi.

And keep your pets away from it too.

Second, if you see a gator, call the man. That is, call your local fish and wildlife management agency. In Florida, there's a special number for "nuisance" alligators, 1-866-FWC-GATOR. Don't be shy, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hotline gets around 100-150 phone calls a day about gators.

What should you do if you hear an alligator hissing?

Run. Alligators hiss to warn you that you are too close, or that they are about to strike.

Gator myths

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences put out a fact sheet below with some common myths about alligators.

Try not to laugh at numbers one and four.

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, of course). 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 an important adaptation 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 the area right 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.

Seriously? Alligators make terrible pets. Although baby alligators may seem like a cool addition to the family, it is illegal to possess an alligator without the proper licenses and permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Alligators are purely instinctual hunters. They do not show affection. Unlike cats and dogs, alligators will never love the hand that feeds them. Eventually, if given the chance, they will eat the hand that feeds them.