Blue Hole is closed to public temporarily
Feeding the gator makes for aggressive actions by reptile

By Steve Estes

National Key Deer Refuge officials closed the Blue Hole observation area briefly last weekend when the resident alligator decided to get a little too friendly.

Visitors reported that the resident alligator, a mid-size female about four feet in length, had crawled up onto the observation platform with humans already there.

“We had reports that the alligator was displaying aggressive behavior so we thought it best to give the animal time to return to natural conditions,” said Nancy Finley, new refuge manager.

Refuge staff re-evaluated the situation on Monday, she said, and the gator seemed to be calmer after its cool down period so the Blue Hole area was reopened.

She said that according to sources with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the alligator’s behavior is typical of like animals that are in close contact with humans over a long period.

US Fish and Wildlife Officer Steve Berger said that the problem stems from humans feeding the alligator.

“Unfortunately, the alligator is getting used to being fed by humans so it seeks them out for more food,” he said.

Although posted warnings against feeding wild animals, both for social and legal issues, are prevalent around Big Pine Key, “sometimes our visitors who have never been exposed to these animals outside a controlled setting feel that they are doing the animal a favor by feeding it human foods,” said Berger.

That’s not the case at all.

The behavior is “imprinting on the alligator that humans are a source of food. They’re not looking at the humans as food, but rather that the humans bring them food. It makes them act a little more aggressively than they would normally around humans,” said Berger.

But that behavior can end badly so there are interim steps to take.

The closure of the area was the first of those steps, said Berger.

“The next option if the behavior continues would be to move the alligator to another location where it had no interaction with humans,” said Berger. “There’s always the chance that the gator finds its way back to the Blue Hole, but we evaluate that and take appropriate steps.”

Berger said the procedure is to do everything possible without doing any damage to the alligator or allowing the gator to do any damage to humans.

“We’ll do everything possible before we even consider euthanizing the animal,” said Berger. “But people need to think of their actions (feeding) as a possible end result of no more gator.”

He says that regardless of the alligator’s calm outer demeanor while it surveys its domain underneath the Blue Hole observation deck, it is still a wild animal “And needs to be treated as such.”

Berger said that feeding alligators, or Key Deer, or any other wildlife on the refuge is a federal misdemeanor, and those folks who don’t get the hint, “Could wind up standing in front of a federal judge. That’s a last resort.”

Berger said he would much rather inform people about the dangers of feeding the wildlife than issue them a citation for federal court where they could face “a hefty” fine.

“This is not the clientele (visitors) where a heavy-handed law enforcement presence is needed,” he said. “Most people just need a gentle reminder.”

Even though the Blue Hole area is again open, Berger and Finley said they would continue to heavily monitor the situation over the next couple of weeks.

“We don’t want a situation where the alligator becomes more aggressive,” said Finley.

Alligators in these parts are typically in closer proximity to humans this time of year as they seek out fresh water to drink.

“Once the wet season rolls in the next couple of months, we should see the gators retreat further away from human areas,” he said. “They won’t have to congregate around the Blue Hole and other fresh-water areas near humans. They can find them elsewhere when the rains come.”

This isn’t the first time that an alligator calling the Blue Hole home has become aggressive with humans due to feeding issues.

Several years ago a large gator that had inhabited the Blue Hole for more than a decade required some special treatment after it became addicted to fried chicken that had been fed to it by several well-meaning visitors.

In that case, the gator would come up onto the path that encircles the Blue Hole and stop people, in essence begging for food.

When a brief closure of the area didn’t substantially change the alligator’s behavior, refuge officials had to go out and begin prodding the animal with a pole, reminding it that humans weren’t always a friendly source of fried chicken, they could also be an enemy.

“People think they’re doing the alligator a favor by feeding it easy food,” said Berger. “That’s not how it works.”

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