Much like the cheetah, the alligator is an incredibly fast runner. Perhaps you’ve seen one rise up on its long, muscular legs and sprint 500 yards (457 meters) across a wide-open field after fleeing prey.
No? You’ve never witnessed such a thing? What you’ve probably witnessed is something like this: You’re standing by a lagoon, checking out a pelican, when you notice two small bumps that protrude from the water. After you take note of the “Don’t Feed the Alligators” sign, you put two and two together and decide those bumps are the eyes of said creature lazily floating in the lagoon. You’re frightened for a moment, but then you remember the classic adage: You can escape an alligator if you run in a zigzag. And this brings you comfort.
But should it? This saying, which is so old and so widespread that it’s virtually impossible to determine where or why it was ever started, implies a couple of things: One, it implies that an alligator is likely to chase you a long distance on land. Two, it implies that alligators can run faster than humans — at least when they’re running in a straight line.
The truth is, although alligators are frighteningly quick, they’re not cheetah fast and they don’t like to run long distances. It’s very rare for an alligator to chase a human on dry land. And the average human could easily outrun an alligator, zigzagging or not — it tops out at a speed of around 9.5 miles per hour (15 kph), and it can’t maintain that speed for very long [source: University of Florida].
More importantly, gaining on prey via a long sprint is not the alligator’s attack tactic. The alligator prefers to sneak up on its prey in the water. It’s a much faster swimmer than runner — it can swim 10 miles per hour (16 kilometers per hour) [source: University of Florida]. And it’s silent as it moves through water. Its eyes are set on top of its head, so it can swim while watching what’s happening on the surface. It can also remain underwater for extended periods of time and hold its breath for up to one hour.
So sure, you could probably escape an alligator if you ran in a zigzag. You probably also could escape one if you ran in a straight line. But the likelihood that an alligator would ever chase you on dry land is so low that the old adage is more joke than genuine advice. It simply doesn’t apply.
Why wouldn’t an alligator chase you? And how would it attack you instead?
Why Alligators Don’t Like to Eat Humans
Not only are alligators not likely to chase you a long distance on dry land, they’re not likely to attack you at all [source: The Croc Docs]. Alligators prefer an easy meal. They’re patient hunters and will stalk their prey in the water for hours before attacking. But once they attack, they don’t want to do a lot of work. Alligators typically abandon prey that fights back. And they don’t like to attack anything they can’t swallow in one gulp. Even large alligators typically choose prey that’s relatively small, which is good news for adult humans.
Small alligators make up the majority of the alligator population. An alligator that is less than 5 feet (1.5 meters) long will typically eat crawfish, small snakes and turtles. They don’t even present a threat to small dogs. Small alligators are not a threat to humans and won’t attack people under normal circumstances [source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission].
Sometimes people think small alligators — say, smaller than 3 feet (0.9 meters) — will make a good pet. In fact, trying to capture an alligator is the most common way people get bitten by one. Even small alligators have 60 to 80 razor-sharp teeth. While a bite may not be life threatening, it still requires a visit to the hospital [source: Black Hammock].
Large alligators are less common, but they’re the greatest threat to humans because they’re big enough to size us up as a legitimate meal. A full-grown alligator that is between 8 and 11 feet (2.4 and 3.4 meters) could weigh up to 1,000 pounds (453 kilograms) [source: Smithsonian National Zoological Park]. Even though these alligators are a threat to humans, they’re still wary of us. Alligators would prefer to avoid interactions with people altogether. When people witness an alligator snapping its jaws and growling, they assume it’s preparing to attack. In fact, this is defensive posturing.
Despite this, alligator bites are on a slight uptick. Much of this is due to the fact that they’re no longer endangered. It’s also attributed to increased human interaction, due to development and population growth. In Florida alone, the state averaged just one bite from 1988 to 1999. However, the period of 2000 to 2016 saw that number jump to seven per year [source: Inside Science]. In fact, in 2020 there were 12 bites reported, eight of which were major (none fatal) [source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission].
Still, the United States as a whole averages only one alligator-related fatality per year [source: The Croc Docs]. From 1948 to 2004, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has received reports of 356 alligator attacks on humans. Twenty-five of those attacks were fatal, and in nine cases it’s believed that the victims were deceased before the alligators ate them for dinner [source: Wilderness Medical Society].
Alligators don’t overturn boats to capture prey. Some people paddling canoes and kayaks have overturned their boats when they scraped the back of an alligator in shallow water, but that wasn’t the alligator’s fault.
Alligators don’t snatch people out of boats. When you see an alligator on the water’s edge silently glide into the water and head toward your boat, it can be frightening. But it’s not what it seems. Alligators simply are much more comfortable in water than on land, so when they’re startled by a boat while sunning themselves, they instinctively head for the water. If you see an agitated alligator or one near a boat dock (or other place they can score a free meal from humans), steer clear [source: Adventure Paddle Tours].
What to Do if You’re Attacked by an Alligator
Alligators won’t run you down on the street. But they will sneak up on you in the water. Although it feels like an unfortunate surprise for the victim, the alligator’s style of attack is very predictable. It latches onto its prey and begins what is known as the death roll. It rolls over and over until its prey is dead, usually by drowning but occasionally from loss of blood.
The alligator then juggles the prey around in its mouth so that it can toss it down its throat. The massive jaw that allows it to hang onto its prey so securely also prevents it from easily chewing and swallowing. This is one reason why large prey presents a problem for an alligator. To eat something large, the alligator must rip pieces from the prey and swallow them separately. And it doesn’t like that task.
If you think an alligator is approaching you, run as fast as you can, in a straight line away from the alligator [source: The University of Florida]. You should be able to easily outrun an alligator. If it seems to be gaining on you, don’t panic. Alligators not only have little endurance, but they also don’t really care to pursue their prey. If an alligator misses its first opportunity to grab its victim, it typically moves on to something else.
If you’re caught unaware at the edge of the water or in the water, which is a more likely scenario, you have less chance to evade the alligator. In the water, the alligator has home field advantage; it’s got you right where it wants you. So a water attack is a worst-case scenario. If you feel the alligator’s jaw clamp down on you, resist. Don’t waste time trying to pry its jaw open, which is nearly impossible. Instead scream, splash and generally create as much confusion for the alligator as possible. As soon as you can get a clear shot, drive your thumb or fingers directly into its eye. This is the most sensitive area of the alligator’s body, and the combination of pain and surprise should be enough to cause the alligator to release you.
Occasionally, a bad-tempered alligator may not give up the fight. As a last ditch effort, you may want to play dead. The alligator releases dead prey as it prepares to maneuver it back into its throat. This can provide you the opportunity to escape. It’s a risky plan, however, and if the alligator has you in the water, you should do everything possible to prevent it from going into a death roll.
The words “death roll” don’t sound good, do they? It’s probably best to avoid a meeting with an alligator altogether.
Gators tend to get a bad rap based on crocs’ misbehavior. Crocodiles are typically more aggressive than alligators and are a legitimate concern for people who share their habitat. Found in Australia, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America, crocodiles have a highly effective salt filtering gland that allows them to live in brackish water and saltwater. The crocodiles of Australia and Africa are particularly well-known for their size, stealth hunting abilities and aggressive temperament.
If you’re in an area with crocodiles, which can grow to up to 23 feet (6.5 meters) in length, it’s important to take special precautions [source: Oceana]. Crocodiles, like alligators, aren’t fast runners, but they’re powerful. They can launch themselves out of the water and grasp prey that is at the water’s edge. So don’t swim, wade or walk along the edge of waters inhabited by these beasts.
Staying Safe in Alligator Territory
Just because alligators have no natural desire to eat us for dinner, doesn’t mean we don’t need to be cautious in their presence. If you live or are vacationing in alligator country, there are some ways to decrease the likelihood of an unpleasant encounter.
Sadly, many human victims of alligator attacks are small children who are wading or playing in water without adult supervision.
Alligators may attack because they’re hungry, but that’s not the most common reason. As humans continue to encroach on wildlife habitat, reducing the alligator’s natural food sources, it’s expected that these types of attacks may increase. The main reasons that an alligator attacks a human are because it’s protecting its territory, it’s nest or it’s angry.
An adult male is territorial during mating season, which is early to mid-summer. If he feels threatened or startled, he may attack. A female with her young may attack if she views a human as a threat to her offspring. In fact, attacks often occur when a human tries to capture or pet young alligators, not realizing that mom is nearby.
Many attacks occur as a result of people teasing or trying to capture alligators. Throwing sticks and rocks at alligators may seem harmless, but doing so creates a dangerous situation for both the person and the alligator. If you come across an alligator in the roadway, never attempt to get it to move. Be patient and let it make its way on its own.
How do you enjoy yourself in areas where alligators may be present? Swim in areas where the water is clear and the banks are well groomed, and never swim alone. Alligators may be lurking in areas where the water is murky and the banks are overgrown with weeds or brush. No matter how inviting the water, it makes sense to avoid it during times when alligators are most active. They typically feed at dusk and through the night, and may still be active at dawn.
If you have children or small pets with you, keep them away from the water’s edge. Only allow them into the water if you or another adult are present to supervise them (or better yet, don’t allow them in the water at all). Also, if you’ve been fishing, don’t clean the fish at the water’s edge or throw the discarded parts into the water. If you see an alligator, get out of the water. Warn others in the area, and no matter how small the alligator is, don’t attempt to pet, feed or capture it.
Never feed an alligator, because this only encourages them to get closer to humans. Plus, it’s not good for them, health-wise. In fact, this is a punishable offense (up to $150 and 30 days in jail) [source: Savannah River Ecology Laboratory].
By following these tips you shouldn’t have to worry whether you’ll run in a zigzag, up a tree or down a hill to avoid an alligator.
Most experts agree that an alligator that attacks a human is an alligator that has been fed by humans. An alligator that has never been fed by humans may attack if it’s teased or feels trapped, but that’s uncommon. Most alligators would never get close enough to humans to be teased if they hadn’t, at one time or another, received food from humans. Every time a person throws food out for an alligator, it leads to a death sentence for that alligator. An alligator that has lost its fear of humans will most likely be trapped and killed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
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More Great Links
Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Adventure Paddle Tours. “Is it safe to kayak with alligators?” 2021 (July 19, 2021) https://adventurepaddletours.com/kayak-with-alligators/
The Black Hammock. “5 Fun Facts About Baby Alligators.” 2021 (July 19, 2021) https://www.theblackhammock.com/5-Fun-Facts-About-Baby-Alligators-1-6134.html
The Croc Docs. “How likely are you to be attacked by an alligator in Florida – during a hurricane or under any circumstance?” 2021 (July 19, 2021) https://crocdoc.ifas.ufl.edu/publications/factsheets/Alligator%20Attack%20Risk%20Comparison%202019.pdf
Florida Museum of Natural History. “A Comparison of Shark Attacks and Fatalities and Alligator Attacks and Fatalities from 1948 to 2005.” (March 16, 2009) http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/attacks/relariskgator.htm
Nagourney, Eric. “Hazards: Alligator Attacks Increasing (Don’t Pick One Up).” New York Post. Sept. 27, 2005. (March 16, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/27/health/27haza.html
National Park Service. “American Alligator.” 2021 (July 19, 2021) http://www.nps.gov/jela/naturescience/upload/alligator.pdf
Rogers, Nala. “Why Are Alligator Bites on the Rise in Florida?” Inside Science. Aug. 20, 2018 (July 19, 2021) https://www.insidescience.org/news/why-are-alligator-bites-rise-florida
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. “How to be safe around alligators.” 2021 (July 19, 2021) https://srelherp.uga.edu/alligators/alligator-safety.htm
Swiman, Elizabeth, et al. “Living With Alligators: A Florida Reality.” University of Florida IFAS Extension. 2021 (July 19, 2021) https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/uw230