Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Me and the Florida Alligator

It didn't occur to me, until I came to Japan, that living in close proximity to alligators for most of one's life isn't exactly humdrum living.  I'm from Florida, where you can see an alligator if you want to on just about any day of the week.  Not at the zoo.  Not at a farm.  In the wild.  Your local pond, perhaps.  Probably the only people that share my nonchalant resignation toward neighboring man-eating reptiles are those living in Florida and Louisiana.  Over a million alligators live in Florida, another million-plus in Louisiana.  One of my guilty pleasures is watching Swamp People, a show about alligator hunting in Louisiana.  Eight other states have small populations.  I'm in my 33rd year and I had no idea until recently that alligators are only native to the USA and China, and that the American Alligator (of which there are millions) and Chinese Alligator (of which there are less than 100 in the wild) are the only two species living.  I'm comforted by that information.  I am not comforted by the fact that no one knows definitively how long they live.  There is one in a zoo in Serbia that is 76 years old.  Another in Latvia died at 75.  And being from Florida, I'm the lucky-girl resident of the only place in the world where alligators AND crocodiles share habitat.  Resignation.  Nonchalant resignation.

But that's just a survival mechanism.  I'm terrified of alligators, and from my terror springs my fascination.  Alligators are...  wait for it...  beautiful.  Maybe it's true that I would prefer their populations at a point slightly above "endangered," but they are awe-inspiring, supremely powerful creatures that inspire thoughts of the distant past; dinosaurs.  To look at one, I get the feeling that something isn't quite right, as though it shouldn't really have made it this far.  I think of this creature as dragging ancient history with it into the present, and that is really cool.  And scary.  Like I said, I have a fear of alligators tipping the scale past healthy.  Their brains are like, the size of a macadamia nut.  They give no cares in the world about you or your precious poodle.  They eat people.  They eat dogs.  They go for a swim in your pool, which is not cool.  I remember stories about children being dragged under the water never to be seen again.  And another story, which I find chuckle-worthy (my sense of humor has always been disturbing):  This criminal in Miami was running from the cops.  He hopped a fence and got gobbled by a gator.  Karma?

I'm scared now, but when I was a kid that big lizard laying in the sun over there meant nothin' to me.  My dad and I would go on Saturday walks around the neighborhood and would commonly see alligators sunning up the grassy knoll from the retention pond or relaxing dead-still in the first few feet of lake water.  

Now, I preface this next part by saying I have a dad that has definitely concerned himself with my safety, forcing tomatoes down my throat and insisting that my car had new tires more often than necessary, but when I was a kid and we saw an alligator he would let me inch up on it.  Yes, sir.  I don't trust my kid memory to tell me how big they were or how far away I was when we had these little adventures, but I can tell you that when you inch up on an alligator, they open their mouths wide and show you all those pearly whites.  I vaguely remember my dad venturing closer one time, making the gator whip around and skidaddle into the pond.  (I think "skidaddle" is a fine way to describe the alligator walk.)  And I am not joking; those things can MOVE.  They look like big lazy lizards but I promise you they are fast when they wanna be.  

Several peculiar ideas come to mind about the Florida Alligator.  For instance, they are extremely powerful when chomping down, but most adults could hold an alligator jaw shut owing to their extremely weak muscles for opening the jaw; not that that is at all encouraging, because maybe they can't open their mouth but they can swing and fight and roll you around without teeth.  Also strange, they only chomp down upon contact with something in their mouth.  A man performing in an alligator show put his head in the alligators mouth, as he had done many times before, but on this particular day a drop of sweat fell from his head and landed in the alligators mouth, prompting the gator to chomp.  As far as I know the guy had a few stitches and was ok.  It just goes to show the peculiarities of the gator's make-up.

Statue at the University of Florida
I went to the University of Florida, otherwise known as the swamp or Gator Nation.  Inside the football stadium is painted This is... Gator Country.  And we ain't lyin' cause you can sit by any body of water on or around the campus and see an alligator.

  Once I was walking around the central lake on campus, known as Lake Alice.    I looked down and there was an alligator about 5 feet from me, and the thing itself was about 6 feet long.  I registered what my situation was and I froze for about 2 seconds, then I high-tailed it to the car.  In the end, nothing really happened, but it sure was scary.  Another time I went out on Lake Wauburg, which is a big lake where students and people from the community go to have day parties and use kayaks, canoes, and row boats.  One day I was out on the lake in a row boat.  I saw gators hanging out in the lake as they do, with only their eyes and their snout visible in the water.    

Then I started getting close enough to the shore that I was spotting alligators out there sunning.  Then there started to be more.  And more.  And I thought this is not cool.  Time to go in.

I know I've been in the water with alligators many times, but only once was I acutely aware of it.  I was tubing down the Rainbow River when there on the side I saw a fairly small alligator, probably 4 feet long.  It was camouflaged kinda like this... 

 I got up on top of my tube as much as I could and prayed that the disembarkment point would come soon, as opposed to the disembodiment part.  

How to escape a gator:
So, my Japanese friend, if you visit Florida or Louisiana and find yourself near the jaws of our biggest lizard, you might ask, What should I do?  I'm glad you asked.  First of all, run.  They can run pretty fast, but not for far and they can't change direction well, so if you can, take a turn at a tree or something.  Maybe the situation is more dire and a gator is attacking your canoe:  Alligators are territorial and seem to think canoes look like other alligators from below, so sometimes they attack.  If you can get a shot, hit it really hard in the nose with your oar.  This is also a really good tactic if your friend is being attacked.  Hit it hard with your oar (or a baseball bat or log) in the nose, ears, eyes; anywhere on the head really.  If you are already in the mouth, shove your hand in and pull on the flap in the lower part of the gator's mouth, or scratch out its eyes.  If you manage to escape, which many have escaped and many others have saved their friends and family, go to the hospital anyway no matter what, cause some people get away and then die of infection.  Don't go into water with alligators at sunrise, or sundown especially, cause that's when they eat.   

I'm moving back to Florida.  I'm moving back in with the gators, and I have to stay vigilant... the other day I asked someone about dangerous water creatures that I need to watch out for in Japanese waters and I mentioned alligators.  They just laughed at me, as apparently there are no dangerous creatures in Japanese waters.   

Oh, sure.  But it wouldn't sound so absurd if you came from where I come from.

From Japan,

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