“To estimate an alligator’s length, convert the distance in inches
from the tip of the nose to the eye ridge into feet.”
I check it twice. Yes, that’s what it says, apparently dead serious, no pun intended.
The night before visiting St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Tallahassee, Florida, early in January, I was checking out their website to see what fabulous birds we could expect to see at that time of year. But under the “Wildlife and Habitat” menu option, it’s not birds that catch my eye but, rather, a navigation tab for alligators.
Uh oh. I had not thought about alligators.
“But maybe they’re not around at this time of year,” I think. “Maybe they head south, in search of warmer waters and jerk chicken.”
And so I peruse the write-up, eagerly and hopefully. My eagerness fades as I see it is less an article than a set of largely unconnected facts. My hope fades as I see nothing on migratory patterns of alligators. Or even their vacation plans.
I do, however, turn up other tidbits.
“Alligators can hear underwater.”
All the better to lunge up out of the water at unsuspecting passersby, my dear.
“Don’t approach or tease alligators; even on land they are quite agile.”
The site doesn’t explain how I am supposed to avoid approaching an alligator that is hidden underwater, ears cocked. And, frankly, I resent the implication of the second part of that advice. Do they think I’m the sort of idiot who would tease an animal capable of eating me?
Trying not to take it personally, since it’s just possible it wasn’t targeted exclusively at me, I read on. Since alligators eat mostly small animals, the size of, say, cats and dogs, the site suggests that pets be kept on a leash. It’s hard to see how a leash will help a cat or dog evade an alligator, and we’ve already established that it’s tough to avoid them.
Then I have an awful thought. Maybe the leash is so you can throw the cat or dog to the alligator when it emerges—dripping, grinning, and quite agile—from the swamp. A bit troubled by this spectre of cross-species betrayal (and wondering what kind of person I am that I can even think of such a possibility), I read on, wondering what will happen to any person or animal caught by an alligator.
“Large amounts of strong acids are secreted to aid the digestion of bones from their prey and an occasional rock that was swallowed by mistake.”
Sorry—did it just say that alligators digest rocks? Well, yes it did, but there is some on-the-other-hand good news.
“Alligators have little strength in opening their jaws and with one hand
their jaw can be held closed (Do not try this!).”
There they go again. “Do not try this,” indeed! Good safety tip. Indignation is steadily gaining ground on fear.
Trying to introduce an element of rationality, I reflect that it makes a difference how big alligators get. The site has that information: They average from 6 to 12 feet long, which seems lots big enough to me. But wait, there’s more!
“The unofficial Florida record is 17’5″ (Lake Apopka 1956).”
I wonder, a tad uneasily, what made this record unofficial. Maybe the person who measured the alligator was then, umm, unavailable to confirm that measurement? The site is silent on this matter.
Notwithstanding the website, we do visit St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge the next day.
We see stubbornly unmigrated alligators: six, not that I was actually, you know, counting. How many were listening to us surreptitiously, underwater, I can’t say. But I can say that we’re pretty sure we set a new record for alligator length, at least in Florida. Herewith, the photographic evidence.
Of course, in all the excitement it’s just possible that I misoverestimated the length in inches from nose tip to eye ridge. Feel free to visit St. Mark’s to take more precise measurements yourself. Just remember to take a small animal with you. On a leash.