MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Wildlife officials in Florida are bating traps, hoping to capture alligators believed responsible for the deaths of two women over the weekend. One was killed while she snorkeled in a lake near Gainesville. The other woman's body was found in a canal in a subdivision north of St. Petersburg. Last week in Ft. Lauderdale, another woman was killed by an alligator after she jogged by a canal.
Nick Wiley, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says such a cluster of alligator attacks is very unusual. There had been only 17 fatal attacks in the last 58 years. I asked him how changes in habitat might contribute to the problem.
Mr. NICK WILEY (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission): The thing that alligators are good at is adapting to different habitats and adapting to environments that man has altered, like canals and ponds and ditches and things like that. And that does spread alligators out into places where they are more likely to run into people.
BLOCK: What makes alligators attack?
Mr. WILEY: Well, it could be a variety of factors. Alligators, first, are very primitive animals. They don't have a big brain. They don't have, you know, a strong thought pattern. They're almost like an on/off switch. And it's all oriented toward seeking food or finding out what they're encountering in their environment.
And so they can fairly, with a simple process, make a quick determination as to whether something's prey or not. And that's why they normally don't seek out people, because people just don't tend to fit into that category, that pattern that their brain tells them is a prey item. They normally eat fish and they normally don't go after larger prey items unless it's convenient, they feel like it's something they can readily take on.
So when an alligator attacks a human, it's normally when they just, it fits into their prey pattern. The human may be swimming or lying prone or crouched down or something and it makes it look like they're smaller and they might be, you know, confused with a raccoon or a dog or something like that.
BLOCK: I've been looking through some safety tips that are posted on the internet about what to do and what not to do with alligators. And one thing that seems to be extremely important is don't feed them. If they associate humans with food, then that can only turn bad.
Mr. WILEY: That's absolutely true. And it's actually against the law in Florida to feed alligators. And it does tend to make alligators more acclimated to people and more looking for a person as a source of food. And that's a bad thing and that's just something we want to avoid at all costs. Now we don't have any indication these recent attacks at this point were resulting from any feeding behavior. So, wouldn't want to jump to any conclusions about these recent cases.
BLOCK: Mr. Wiley, after attacks like this, what does Fish and Wildlife do in terms of trying to capture the alligators that might be responsible?
Mr. WILEY: We pull out all the stops. We have our trappers assigned to the area. These are contracted trappers who are very experienced catching alligators. We do everything we can to try to capture the offending animal so that it can help with our investigation and also remove an animal like that out of the system.
BLOCK: And in order to figure out whether it is the animal you're looking for, how do you do that?
Mr. WILEY: Well, in these unfortunate events, you can tie it to, you know, missing tissues and things like that. They do a necropsy of the animal to try to determine what it's been eating and try to tie any indicators, you know, clothing, anything like that to that animal.
BLOCK: So you would trap the animals, you would have to kill them to do the necropsy that you're talking about.
Mr. WILEY: Yes, absolutely, you would. And that's the way our nuisance program works. Actually, every alligator that's taken as a nuisance animal is killed. And we found, after a lot of years of research and experience, that if you relocate alligators like that, you just move your problem.
BLOCK: Do you have any sense, Mr. Wiley, of whether you might be seeing more incidents like the ones you've seen over the last week or whether that was just sort of a fluke-y thing of having three attacks like this?
Mr. WILEY: Well, you know, I certainly hope that this is, what you say, a fluke-y or unusual event. There's nothing that would suggest this is trend that we're going to see continued.
BLOCK: Mr. Wiley, thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. WILEY: You're very welcome.
BLOCK: Nick Wiley is director of the hunting and game division with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He spoke with us from his office in Tallahassee.
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