Croc, Gator Attacks Far Outpace Sharks

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An alligator at the Florida Everglades. Lethal alligator attacks actually outnumber deadly shark attacks in the United States.
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THE GIST

- Over the past decade, 13 people have died from U.S.-based alligator attacks.

- Suburban sprawl in Florida has brought alligators and crocodiles in closer contact with people.

- In the unlikely event that you are attacked by an alligator, fighting back can help.

If "Shark Week" has made you fearful of jumping into the ocean, you might want to consider the dangers of tromping through the American wetlands. Over the past decade, more people have perished at the mouths of alligators than those of sharks in this country.

Nine people have died from U.S.-based shark attacks, while 13 were mortal victims of alligator attacks, according to statistics from the Florida Museum of Natural History and the fish and wildlife commissions of Florida and Georgia.

Meanwhile, American crocodiles have never killed or even bitten anyone in their native Florida, but they certainly have the chops to do it. Three decades ago, their numbers had dwindled to about 300. Thanks to conservation efforts, they've moved off the Endangered Species list and now boast a current population of close to 1,800.

Millions of humans recreate daily in oceans, lakes, canals and marshy areas without ever having to fend off a sharp-toothed attacker, but it's always good to be aware of potential danger.

An upcoming Discovery Channel program called "Croc Attack" focuses on residents of Darwin, Australia, who learn that changing weather patterns and suburban sprawl are prompting crocs to slide back into areas thought safe for swimming. In one of the worst cases, an 11-year-old girl is eaten by a saltwater croc several miles up a freshwater stream.

So how likely are crocodilian attacks in the Southern United States?

"I think you're more likely to be killed by a falling vending machine than by an alligator," scoffed Florida Fish and Wildlife Agent Lindsey Hord, a leading national expert on American alligators and crocodiles.

Asked whether he'd rather die from a falling vending machine or by a crocodilian dragging him to the bottom of a swamp, he promptly responded, "neither."

But wild animal attacks wouldn't make such popular TV shows if that primal fear weren't still so prevalent in humans.

Crocodiles, once prevalent in Darwin, were nearly wiped out by hunters during the first half of the last century. That made it safe for humans to develop the area and enjoy recreational activities along its coastlines and streams.

Similar scenarios took place in Florida during that era. The state's population exploded with the dawn of air conditioning. Since then, people have flocked to the state for its sunshine, beaches and pristine wetlands, all assets crocodilians can certainly appreciate.

In Darwin, crocodiles are moving back home to find humans encroaching in their old stomping grounds. In Florida, better enforcement of wildlife protection laws and suburban sprawl increase the chances of crossing paths with a croc or gator.

So how do you take precautions to avoid a grisly crocodilian encounter?

By and large, both alligators and crocodiles are opportunists, said Hord. They aren't likely to go chasing you down on the poolside patio. In fact, when they're out on land, they generally aren't looking for prey, Hord said.

However, if either reptile starts hissing or snapping at you, just get out of its way, and if you can't do that, call 911. Operators can patch you through to a wildlife hotline.

"Certainly an alligator or a croc is going to defend itself, but leave it alone and it'll return to the water," Hord said.

"If you make good decisions, then there's no reason to be irrationally afraid," he added.

On the rare chance you do find yourself or a loved one clenched in the teeth of a crocodilian, experts say fight with all your might.

"Smack them and punch them in the nose, eyes, and head, and fight them with everything you have," said Todd Hardwick, owner of the Pesky Critters trapping program. "Most of the time they'll let go and move off."

And remember, experts say, crocs and alligators are just trying to do their part for the ecosystem.

"Crocodilians are top-level predators. They keep other populations healthy by stopping them from overpopulating," said Hord.

"Croc Attack" airs on Discovery Channel Saturday, Aug. 7 at 9 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 8 at 12 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Julienne Gage is a journalist who's produced news for the BBC, NBC, The Miami Herald, The Associated Press and more. She's currently coordinating producer for the Discovery Channel.

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