BILOXI -- The potential for human encounters with alligators is reaching its peak as the reptiles' mating season comes to a close and female alligators begin to nest, though outright gator attacks upon humans are extremely unlikely in Mississippi.
The state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks is urging residents to refrain from feeding wild alligators and to notify the agency of any alligators being fed by humans.
Ricky Flynt, the agency's alligator program coordinator, said the greatest threats typically come from gators that have been fed by humans.
"Alligators have a natural tendency to avoid humans and human activity," he said. "The only time we have any serious problems are typically related around people who had been feeding alligators."
Alligators are naturally afraid of humans, but humans can quickly alter a gator's nature by feeding it. The animals lose their natural fear of people and begin to see humans as a food source, Flynt said.
Tragedy at Disney
The attention on dangerous alligator encounters soared Tuesday night when an alligator lurking in a lagoon at Disney World ambushed and attacked a 2-year-old Nebraska boy who was wading in ankle-deep water close to the shoreline.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, whose office is leading the investigation, announced Wednesday the boy's body was found near where he was taken in about 6 feet of water. Witnesses said the child was quickly dragged under the water though his father fought unsuccessfully to save him.
No one else was in the water at the time. Signs posted near the lagoon warn against swimming but make no mention of alligators. Authorities had not received any recent reports of nuisance gators in the area, but questions about the reptiles' presence in Disney World's lagoons will be part of the investigation, the sheriff said.
The gator that snatched the child, the sheriff said, was reported to be 4 to 7 feet long.
Gator attacks rare
When hunting for a meal, alligators typically lurk beneath the water and ambush their prey without warning. Often they will lunge and snatch a land animal that ventures near the shoreline, dragging it underwater to drown it, Flynt said.
Attacks such as the one Tuesday are rare across Florida, which hosts the nation's largest alligator population, but are even more uncommon in Mississippi.
Not a single gator attack on a human has ever been documented in Mississippi, according to the MDWFP. That statistic excludes provoked bites that often occur when people are handling the animals, Flynt said.
Provoked or defensive bites are actions of last resort for an alligator and typically follow several attempts by the reptile to warn and scare away potential threats, Flynt said.
Common warning signs can be easily identified as the gator will often hiss loudly or lunge toward its subject. The animal's natural instinct, Flynt said, is to expend as little energy as possible to protect itself and its offspring.
Activity high in summer
Gators are most active in spring and summer, during mating season from late April through June, then nesting season from July through late August or early September.
Adult male alligators become territorial during mating season, but their defensiveness is usually directed at other alligators, not humans. Nesting female gators can become aggressive toward anything they perceive as a threat. They sometimes use passive methods, such as camouflage, to protect their offspring, Flynt said.
Encounters with alligators are more likely at night as they are nocturnal predators.
Ultimately, Flynt said, people should keep in mind alligators are wild animals and thus unpredictable.
Anyone who comes across an alligator should make as much noise as possible and move away from the animal. If unable to escape an attack, people should fight back by poking and hitting the alligator's eyes, he said.
"Never feed an alligator," Flynt said. "That's the biggest thing that we want to drive home. Feeding alligators is against the law, and it creates a potentially very dangerous situation for the next person who may not know an alligator is in the area."