TIM CHITWOOD: Get to know your neighbors the alligators

June 22, 2013 

Here's a summer safety tip: If you're down by the river and the ground seems to move, get away fast.

You could be too close to an alligator, and it's best to keep a safe distance.

Gators are on the move this time of year. When highs hit the 90s, the cold-blooded crocodilians get downright frisky.

On flat, open land, they can get up on their stubby legs and darn near sprint -- though they're more likely to sprint away from a human than toward one. They're expert swimmers, of course, but they don't come darting at you like sharks. They sneak up and drag their prey under.

These reptiles were here long before we were, but that doesn't make living among them any easier for some folks -- like folks who didn't know they lived among alligators.

"The biggest thing that I see is that so many people are just unaware that alligators naturally inhabit Columbus," said Jason Clark, whose Southeastern Reptile Rescue business gets busy this time of year.

Some of his rescued gators he releases here on the Chattahoochee River, where alligators congregate primarily on the south side of town. Some folks don't understand why he drops them off here, he said. "That is the thing that really gets people: 'Hey, why are you letting them go here? This isn't Florida.'"

Clark's in charge of the reptiles down at Columbus' Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center, where he puts on programs about snakes and gators and such.

"When I do a reptile presentation, one thing I do is when I get the alligator out, I ask them, because I'm curious: 'Do alligators live in Georgia?' And so many in the audience say, 'No!'" he said.

So he breaks the news that gators belong here: "They're supposed to be in Columbus and Macon and Augusta. That's the fall line. Columbus is the northernmost part of their range, but alligators don't know that. They go quite a ways north of Columbus."

With gators moving upstream as more people move down, they see each

other a lot now. That so freaks some people out that they'll call 911 not because they saw an alligator in their yard, but because they saw an alligator.

Across the river in Russell County, Eric Kline with the county animal control division gets the calls. Sometimes he has to tell callers that yes, he is aware a pond has a gator in it. In fact it has more than one, he might add, and no, he is not going out to catch wild alligators that pose no threat.

He gets about four gators a year, from a foot to 12 feet long, he said.

Clark said alligators hardly ever bother humans who aren't bothering alligators, and one of the worst ways to bother a gator is to feed it. Once it associates people with food, it comes looking for food when people are around. Left to itself, it leaves people alone -- usually.

If people have pets with them, that's different.

A dog splashing in the water is going to sound just like any other prey to a gator. An alligator has sensors along its lower jaw that gauge through ripples the size of what's making the motion. Its bulging eyes fix on that target as it glides over to investigate.

It typically tries to eat only what looks smaller than it is, Clark said. A grown human standing on the shore is too intimidating. But a pet, or a child, or an adult who's squatting by the water might look manageable to a big gator.

That's why it's good to get away if you're down by the river and suddenly the ground seems to move.

An alligator is more likely to run for the water than for a human, but get between a gator and its swimming hole, and you could wind up wishing you'd given it more room.

Tim Chitwood, tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com, 706-571-8508.

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