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.
When the actual culprit is caught and killed, people see that the job is already done. Singling out the killer for execution drives home the fact that man-eaters (or man-killers, in the case of Steve Irwin) are the exception. When a killer is left out in the wild, the accompanying message to the public is something along the lines of: This is just the animal acting according to its nature.
It is undeniably the nature of predators to hunt and kill. But the scarcity of attacks on people suggests that hunting humans is not normal behavior among predators. There have been 225 documented cases of major bites from alligators in Florida since 1984. That number is remarkably low for a state that currently has a population of roughly 1 million alligators and 19 million people.
Man-eaters do have a tendency to turn a one-time thing into a habit. A small number of aberrant animals are responsible for a shockingly high share of human attacks. The infamous Panar leopard of Northern India killed and mostly ate 410 human beings until the famous hunter Jim Corbett ended its career in 1910.
A single, huge crocodile in Burundi had eaten up to 300 people as of 2008. ”Gustave” is presumably still out there in the wild. A Frenchman by the name of Patrice Faye spent about 15 years unsuccessfully trying to trap the creature alive.
The case of Gustave illustrates the problem with a “die and let live” approach to man-eaters. In spite of the massive body count racked up by this animal, both Faye and a group of biologists, including herpetologist Brady Barr, spent quite a long time trying to capture Gustave alive rather than simply kill the croc. Their goal was to advocate for conservation of Nile crocodiles, but as Barr himself pointed out in National Geographic:
"People have to get their water, do their laundry, fish for a living," says Barr. "If a croc does take a person, villagers may slaughter a few crocs after an attack—enough to feel as if they've done something—and then they go back to doing what they have to do."
How many innocent crocodiles were killed in retaliation for Gustave's attacks while Barr and Faye were messing around with their cages and snares rather than killing the crocodile? This wasn't good for either the humans or the crocodiles.
These repeat performances are typical among man-eaters of many species. Bears, lions, tigers, leopards, alligators, crocodiles, cougars. Possibly sharks as well, assuming the 1916 attacks that inspired Jaws were in fact the work of a single shark.
The man-eater is exceptional. It isn't a normal predator. The idea that the man-eater is an innocent totem of nature while man is the guilty interloper simply does not hold up to scrutiny.
Unless the species' numbers are so low that genetic diversity is in immediate danger, there is no advantage to letting an animal like Gustave live. The consequences of leaving a man-eater in the wild, whether it is the brown bear that devoured Timothy Treadwell or the gator that swam off with Kaleb Langdale's arm, are terrible for nearly everyone concerned.
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