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From state icon to neighborhood nuisance

More than 18,000 times last year, Florida wildlife biologists heard a complaint about an alligator.
Alligator Hunting Season Begins In Florida
Bob Dombroski, left, and his son Mark secure an alligator they just killed to their airboat on the first day of alligator hunting August 15 on Lake Okeechobee near Belle Glade, Florida, on Aug. 15.  Joe Raedle / Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

More than 18,000 times last year, Florida wildlife biologists heard a complaint about an alligator.

There's a gator swimming in our lake.

There's a gator sunning itself in my back yard.

There's a gator who ate my dog.

Now, as more and more of the reptiles once prized as endangered are being tagged by Floridians as nuisances, the state wildlife commission is considering rules that would make it easier to trap and kill the black, scaly creatures slumbering on suburban patios. Some proposals might allow homeowners to trap the critters themselves, rather than calling in state-hired trappers. Other ideas include altering the animal's legal status from "species of special concern" to "game," and allowing more extensive hunting.

The state population of alligators is estimated at more than 1 million.

"People recognize now that we have a lot of alligators and they are in no way threatened," said Lindsey Hord, biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Alligator Management Program. "We don't need to be as tolerant of alligators in urban areas because we do have lots of alligators in wild areas -- I mean lots of them."

The number of alligator complaints has been rising steadily in recent years, less because of an increase in the alligator population than because of the steady flow of complainants -- people -- moving into Florida. The human population has increased 11 percent -- nearly 2 million new residents -- over the past five years.

In 2005, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received more than 18,000 alligator complaints. Trappers removed more than 7,700, according to commission statistics.

"We build thousands of homes every year in the wetlands, and now we're up to our ears in alligators and we wonder why," said Todd Hardwick, a trapper who handles more than 100 gator complaints a year in South Florida for state officials.

"So many times I go out on a call and I hear the same thing. The homeowner tells me, 'I just bought this house last year and it's a gated community and we have 24-hour security and . . . this gator moved into our lake .' And I have to say, 'Wait a minute -- last year, this was a wetland.' People need to know they live in gator country."

The suburban fear of alligators blossomed this year, when there were three fatalities in Florida that were believed to be alligator incidents. One has been confirmed officially.

"When you string three mortalities together, then the telephones begin to ring off the hook," said H. Franklin Percival, associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida and the leader of the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. But "if the alligator population is expanding, it's expanding slowly."

The danger may be far less significant than the headlines suggest. The recorded number of unprovoked alligator bites -- that is, those not involving trappers or those who handle the animals professionally -- was only seven in 2005, according to state statistics.

Floridians' attitudes toward alligators have undergone profound changes in recent decades.

Many native Floridians can remember swimming in ponds where alligators lived. In this more safety-conscious era, folks take a more cautious approach.

"We didn't think much of it," said Hord, who grew up in Florida and has his own recipe for seasoning and deep-frying alligator meat. "The chances of being bitten are very, very slim."

After poaching and over-harvesting depressed the population to low levels in the 1960s, alligators were placed on the list of endangered species. Since then, their numbers are believed to have risen dramatically.

The state now allows limited alligator hunts, but the species is still protected under state law. The new rules could loosen the restrictions, possibly even eliminating the size and quota restrictions on private lands.

"My first-grade teacher told me my children might never seen an alligator," Hardwick said. "But my daughter sees lots of them -- in fact, we have one at home. Somehow, in 30 years, they've gone from 'endangered' to 'nuisance.' "