The alligator is a primitive and unpredictable predator, and any serious effort to answer the question of why alligators attack must contain much speculation. There is ample evidence that alligators are able and willing, under some circumstances, to utilize human victims for food. The facts surrounding every serious reported attack in Florida since 1973 suggest that, in every case were it was possible to ascertain, the victim was unaware of the alligator’s presence until last minute or, more usually, until the animal had actually attacked. In every case, the victim had been, at least partially, in the water with the alligator. It appears that in most serious attacks the victim was actually stalked, suggesting that the aggression was hunger motivated. Yet, when one considers the thousands of contacts between alligators and people that occur each day without incident, it would appear that such behavior is extremely rare.
Food – habit studies demonstrate that alligators are largely fish eaters but significant numbers of amphibians, birds, and small mammals also appear in their diet. There is little evidence that alligators take animals as large as humans on a regular basis. However, they are very opportunistic and will take whatever they are capable of catching if they find it in their habitat. They commonly take calves on Florida ranches and dogs of all sizes; they have also been observed taking large swine of up to 45 kilograms (100 pounds) in weigh and large goats. Humans obviously fall into a prey- size class that very large alligators are capable of taking.
Analysis of information suggests that younger and / or smaller humans are more likely to be a target.
It is commonly reported in the news media that possible reasons for alligator attacks are female nest defense. Females do, on occasion, defend their nest from intruders and may behave defensively when their young are disturbed but only a small percentage of females appear to do so and the defense is generally short – lived, particularly if the aggressive female is struck across the snout with a stout stick. (On rare occasions I have seen females so defensive that I Would leave the nest site and once I had a very aggressive female come into the airboat with me as I retreated from her nest.) Usually the female provides plenty of warning, with an obvious display of defensive behavior such as mouth gaping and hissing, giving the prudent person time to retreat.
Aggressive displays by males are less common and much harder to categorize. Large males have been seen to assume an apparently defensive posture against low – flying helicopters and sometimes inflate their bodies with tails arched out of the water in aggressive displays when small boats approach them. Even if the animal actually attacked, therefore, the obvious display would have provided plenty of time for retreat.
One of the common questions raised is whether large alligators in frequent contact with people become more dangerous. Alligators were persecuted in Florida from early settlement until the late 1960s. They were commercially hunted with little effective regulation on harvest until 1969 when a United State federal law (the Lacey Act) was amended. This was the first effective control of the illegal taking of alligators. In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed in the United States and, as result of both laws, alligators were afforded greater protection than they had ever previously received. The population response was immediate but, in retrospect, it is clear in addition to real population increases, some of the perceived increase was in fact due to the alligators become more visible as a result of less persecution.
Based on scientists’ experience of capturing animals for research purposes and running managed hunts, it is apparent that alligators become very wary when harassed but, in those locations where large alligators live unmolested adjacent to humans, it is not common to see them attempt to escape at mere presence of humans. Under these circumstances one must speculate that large unmolested animals may be more dangerous than those that show fear of humans. There are cases where large alligators are actually fed by people on regular basis around fishing camps, public parks and lakes. This is often put forward as cause for attacks and, although no such cases have been documented, one must conclude that it has the potential to be a contributing factor.