Early explores in Florida regarded the American Alligators as a threat to life and property, and it is claimed that alligators were a constant threat to the Indians who kept guard against them night and day. William Bartram, an explorer, described an encounter with three larger alligators that attacked his boat while he was exploring on the St. John’s River in the early 1790s. R.L. Ditmars reported in 1953 that “from a wave of a extermination (by the mid 1900s) the alligator has retreated into more secluded swamps and bayous …(and now) evinces great timidity toward man …so great is the reptile’s fear of man that one can safely go bathing in waters inhabited by alligators”. There are, however, no scientific reports documenting alligator attacks before 1977 although the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission has collected newspaper clippings on attacks as far back as 1948.
Even though early records are not as good as they are today, it is evident that alligator attacks in Florida increased from the late 1960s until the mid- 1970s. There were as many as 14 attacks reported each year during the early 1970s and six known human fatalities have been documented since 1973. In addition, there have been several other cases where serious injuries were inflicted on the victim. In most cases, however, the injuries inflicted were relatively minor.
From the late 1960s (when alligator populations were lowest) until the early 1970s alligator numbers increased significantly in Florida.
During this period the state also experienced phenomenal human population growth with much of the subsequent development occurring adjacent to wetland areas. The problem of conflicts between humans and alligators was well publicized during this time and almost any episode involving alligators and people was covered in the news media. Almost all alligator attacks within the state were also reported to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, which investigated each reported attack.
Consequently, from the mid- 1970s there are good records of alligators attack in Florida. Concurrent with these events, an intensive alligator research program was initiated by the state, which included some effort to evaluate attack behavior.
The first document fatality from an attack in Florida occurred in August 1973 when a 16 – year – old girl was killed while swimming with her father in Sarasota Count, Florida. It was during this period ( 1968 – 73) that complaints about alligators increased and , by 1976, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission was receiving at least 5,000 complaints each year about nuisance alligators, which were perceived as a threat to life or property. In response to this, the Commission initiated a program allowing private trappers to harvest alligators that were reported as nuisance animals by the public. This program targeted many potential problem animals and resulted in the removal of approximately 2,000 alligators each year. The complaint rate and the number of animals harvested have now stabilized. The number of attacks also appeared to have stabilized until 1986 when a near record of 13 occurred.
Recently there were two very dramatic fatal attacks. A scuba diver was killed in a popular tourist area in North Florida in 1987 and a small child was killed by an alligator close to a residential area in South Florida in 1988. When such incidents occur the complaint rate increases dramatically.