Originally created 08/14/04

Learning some respect



HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - As Tim Williams pulled a tiny 1-year-old alligator out of his shirt, the eyes of several dozen children lit up.

Mr. Williams wasn't just showing off his animals from Gatorland in Orlando, Fla. He also was teaching the audience of about 50 people at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island how to respect gators and behave safely around them.

"We've got to learn to get along with them," Mr. Williams said as he held an approximately 3-foot-long alligator in his arms - after he had put the baby reptile back in his shirt. "We built our houses in the alligators' back yards and we call them a nuisance."

The state gets several hundred calls from residents each year about alligators, said Dean Harrigal, a state Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.

But most of the reports aren't about nuisance gators. A nuisance alligator is one that is more than 6 feet long and is behaving in a threatening manner, such as coming up to a person with its mouth open.

Mr. Harrigal and Mr. Williams agree that one of the worst things to do around a gator is to feed it. Such alligators associate people with food, increasing the likelihood they could bite a person.

Alligators don't eat by chewing their food. They rip it with their teeth.

"It's tear on the dotted line," Mr. Williams said.

Gators eat mostly meat. Young alligators eat insects, while larger alligators eat larger animals such as snakes.

Though they can be dangerous, most things alligators do aren't harmful to humans, Mr. Williams said. People just need to use common sense around them, such as not swimming in areas with gators at night, when the animals are more active.

Alligators evolved about 20 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still on the earth. An alligator can live for 55 to 60 years.

Not everyone perceives the reptiles as threatening.

After the presentation, 6-year-old Colson Sapp, of Statesboro, Ga., cozied up to one of Mr. Williams' gators, and all he could think about was how he could get one of his own.

"Mommy, when can I have a pet alligator?" Colson asked.