Uninvited guests may come crawling

Planter's Pointe resident Jessie Hayden e-mailed neighbors this photo Wednesday of a 10-foot alligator sunning beside a driveway last fall.

A 10-foot alligator stretched out along a driveway became the photo of the week in the Planter's Pointe subdivision in Mount Pleasant.

The photo, shot in the same neighborhood where a dog was killed by a gator a few years ago, serves as a warning that higher temperatures have coaxed the cold-blooded reptiles out into sun.

"We don't want to scare anybody, but it's important they realize what's out there and watch for their children and pets," said Jessie Hayden, who shot the photo in the fall. She sent it through a community e-mail list to more than 300 residents after that gator and a few others began crawling back out of the pond and marsh around her house. "There's a five-footer over there in our pond right now."

Hayden sits on her front porch and sees children wander unaware along the pond edge. She's seen kids throwing rocks at an alligator.

"When they're in the water, you can't really comprehend how big they are," she said. "Alligators are nothing to play with."

To that, wildlife officials say amen. More than 100,000 alligators roam the wetlands in South Carolina and more than a few of them could be slinking through the water near you. The first phone calls from alarmed residents already are coming in to the state's Department of Natural Resources.

Last summer, 158 alligators were removed as nuisances or emergencies in the three counties around Charleston, said Jay Butfiloski, coordinator of the fur-bearer and alligator programs. The average size was 7 feet, 6 inches.

"With the warm-up we're having, it's going to be common to see them sunning on the bank. That's what they do," he said. "When it gets hotter they tend to stay more in the water."

They normally eat fish, turtles and small mammals, so a pet or anyone who seems to be that size in or around water is prey. Swimming around them isn't a good idea because they react to disturbances in the water. They are opportunistic. They can be aggressive during the May mating season or if they feel threatened. Their girth belies the quick snap of their strike. A man lost an arm while snorkeling in Lake Moultrie in 2008.

Last fall, 362 alligators were taken in 13 counties among 1,000 hunters licensed in a one-month hunt intended to keep the growing population in check. That was about twice as many as DNR officials expected. The average size was a little bigger than 9 feet.

There are 23 pipe-connected ponds in the marshside Planter's Pointe subdivision and there are lots of alligators, said resident Jill Cragg, who put together the e-mail list as a news update for neighbors. Gators even haunt the woods alongside some ponds.

"We live in an area where alligators naturally live and we need to respect that. It's time to be on the safe side," she said. "Don't approach them, don't taunt them, don't tempt them with food."

DO'S AND DON'TS

• Don't feed. Providing food for wild animals makes them bolder and encourages them to seek out people.

• Do keep your distance. Alligators are extremely strong and can move with a startling burst of speed on land over short distances. A safe distance from an adult alligator is about 60 feet.

• Don't disturb nests or small alligators. Some female alligators protect their young and may become aggressive if provoked.

• Do keep pets and children away from alligators. Large alligators do not recognize the difference between domestic pets and wild food sources.

• Don't swim in areas that are known alligator habitats. Splashing can attract alligators that think a prey animal is injured or a female animal is protecting her young or eggs.

• To report nuisance alligators, call 953-9856. To report emergency concerns call the radio room at 1-800-922-5431.