Seventeen-year-old Kaleb Langdale was swimming in a river near Lake Okeechobee in Florida a few days ago when an alligator attacked. The gator, more than 10 feet long, swam straight at him and lunged in for the kill.
Kaleb reacted in the manner that so often means the difference between life and death among humans who have been chosen as prey by large predators. He fed it an arm to chew on, saving the more vital parts of his anatomy while he figured out what to do next.
The big gator ripped off his arm at the elbow and swallowed it as Kaleb struggled back to the surface and shouted, "call the paramedics, my arm is gone!"
Western culture has a strange way of looking at those rare animals that kill and eat human beings. Most of us don't spend very much time out in nature or encounter wild animals in person, and our ideas about wildlife are often informed by a combination of cartoons and bad reality television. Our view of potentially dangerous animals is greatly influenced by the fact that most man-eating species either are or have been endangered, making them seem more like victims than aggressors.
The American alligator, once listed as an endangered species, has since become one of the Endangered Species Act's greatest success stories. Gators are nearly as plentiful in much of Florida and Louisiana as whitetail deer are in the northeast. They are thick along the Gulf Coast as far north as North Carolina, possibly expanding their range into Virginia. In an age of global warming, it is good to be cold-blooded.
When alligator numbers were low, there was a broad effort by environmentalists and the government to portray the animal in more sympathetic terms: misunderstood, harassed, posing no real danger to human beings. The myth-making may have been necessary to save the species. Past incidents of man-eating were brushed aside, and excuses were often found for blaming the victims.
Indeed, reckless human behavior is often to blame for alligator attacks. About 35 percent of attacks in Florida result from humans deliberately seeking an encounter with the animals. Trying to capture, move, or even wrestle alligators often ends violently. One recent victim decided to go swimming in a dark canal at 2 a.m. Incident reports of alligator attacks often read like episodes of the TV show Cops. Yet other victims are clearly blameless. Simply walking near water can get you killed in gator country.
The alligator that swallowed Kaleb Langdale's arm was immediately killed by game wardens. The arm was recovered from the animal’s stomach and brought to the hospital, but doctors were unable to reattach it. The fact that the alligator was killed elicited a surprising storm of negative comments online. A typical example read, "Very upset that they killed the alligator who was in his natural habit and doing what alligators do. The young man has two legs—stay on land and not where alligators live."
But killing wild animals—even endangered ones—that attack humans is arguably necessary for the continued protection of the species. There is a brief opportunity after an attack to capture or kill the responsible animal. If authorities hesitate to act in time, the locals tend to take matters into their own hands. Vigilante justice will be broad and indiscriminate.
After Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray's barb to his heart, angry fishermen killed stingrays by the thousands (exactly the opposite of what Irwin would have wanted). When lions have attacked humans in Africa in recent decades, everyone with a rifle is ready to open fire on any lion they see. They do this because any lion or stingray they spot might be the killer.
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