NC biologist has tips on alligator awareness, safety

Southeastern states are where alligators typically make their homes, and North Carolina is right in the northernmost part of that area.

Following the tragic death of a 2-year-old Nebraska boy drowned by an alligator in Orlando, Fla., ABC11 spoke with NC Wildlife Commission biologist Jessie Birkhead to discuss minimizing danger in water-based recreation areas and other places alligators may live.

Areas that are natural alligator habitats in North Carolina.

NC Wildlife Resources Commission

What should people be aware of this summer when they're out in spaces that are not totally man-made but not totally natural either?

"Alligators are found in North Carolina, all the way from our northern coast near Virginia, all the way to our southern coast near the border of South Carolina.

"We particularly have alligators in that southern coastal region, and any time you are around any water source in that area -- so that could be freshwater swamps or marshes, even ponds and golf courses -- there is a potential that there could be an alligator there.

"So it's always important to be aware of your surroundings and we recommend that folks be particularly careful around water if they have pets, keeping their pets on a leash when they're walking them in certain areas, being sure that kids are always with an adult and following any signage or precaution in the area where you're at."

When you say that we have alligators in our state, is it a large population compared to other southern states?

"North Carolina is at the very northern extent of where alligators are found in the United States. We have significantly fewer alligators than you would find in a warmer area such as Florida or Louisiana.

"That being said, we do have alligators in the counties along our coast, all the way from Virginia down to South Carolina, and alligators typically spend their time in freshwater systems so things like swamps. They get into brackish water areas, marshes, that sort of thing."

"We don't have alligators here in the Triangle area, but just in case there is any confusion about that, There are reported sightings, pop-ups here or there, but there are no alligators here in the Raleigh-Durham area."

So when people are vacationing this summer, either in our state or in other southern states, what should they be aware of?

"The full range of the American alligator includes North Carolina. It runs all the way south down to Florida and then west all the way over to coastal Texas.

"So if you're on vacation this summer you could encounter an alligator in the waters all along the coast of any of those states, and it's always a good idea to be on the lookout, be aware of your surroundings, and again always make sure that kids and pets are always supervised for their protection, and be sure to give animals space, if and when you see them in the wild.

American alligator

Jeff Hall

How can people help build their awareness for wildlife when they're outside?

"Wildlife are incredibly adaptable and so we're able to see wild animals in places where we may not expect them, pretty commonly, and that goes for North Carolina and throughout the United States.

"So when in doubt the best thing you could do is always keep a safe distance away from a wild animal, and that's for your safety but also for the safety of the wild animal itself.

"So always be sure to give space when you see wild animals in the wild, never touching or feeding or in any way provoking an animal, will protect you and also protect that animal from any inadvertent harm."

Are there cities that come to mind when you think of southern vacation spots that might have gators?

"From the coast of North Carolina, all the way down through Florida and over to Texas, you could encounter an alligator.

"Common vacation spots where you could encounter an alligator could be places like Hilton Head, certainly Bald Head Island, the Wilmington area here in North Carolina, the Charleston area in South Carolina, any of the big coastal cities where you may go on vacation this summer, those could be areas where you can potentially encounter an alligator."

What are alligators like in the wild?

"Alligators in the wild are typically very shy and secretive animals. They're fairly fearful of humans. Where that changes is in places where animals are being fed or are regularly being harassed or provoked by people, but in those situations some alligators can grow more accustomed to people and then they become more of a potential threat to people.

"So what we encourage folks to remember is that it's illegal to feed alligators. You should never approach or feed or provoke or harass an alligator in any way, and that will help keep you safe and keep anyone else in that area safe as well.

"And being sure, again, to make sure kids and pets are always under close supervision if you're in an area where you think there could be an alligator. That's your best defense against any potential interaction with that animal in the wild."

Some have heard the old wives' tale that if you can't see the bottom of a body of water, it could be home to a gator. Is that true, and are there tips to keep in mind when you don't know what's in an area?

"Any time you're thinking about going swimming or spending time in the water this summer, if you're unsure about whether an area is safe for swimming, your best bet is to always stay out of the water in those situations, and that's particularly important with kids or pets to make sure that you're very clear on what you may encounter in that area.

"And if you're unclear, find another place where you've got a better understand of what you might run into in that environment."

What's the thing you would want people to know more than anything else?

"The most important thing is to remember that alligators are an important part of our coastal ecosystem. And to protect yourself and to protect the animals, it's essential that people leave alligators alone if you see them in the wild and enjoy seeing them from a distance.

"Keep a safe, respectful distance from the animal and never feed them, harass them or approach them in anyway."

"It's important to remember that, with alligators, the best thing to do for your safety and the safety of those around you, and the safety of the alligators themselves, is you always leave the animal alone.

It's exciting to see one in the wild, to observe them from a safe, respectful distance, but keeping safe from that animal will protect you, protect those around you, and protect the alligator itself."

Check out more on what the NC Wildlife Resources Commission says about co-existing with alligators here.

Learn more about the alligator and its habits here.

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