Crocodile Fears

Golfers and fishermen beware! The endangered reptile is making a comeback.

The fourth hole at Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne is particularly treacherous. There are brackish ponds surrounded by mangroves on both sides of the tee. An errant drive can send a ball flying into muddy oblivion. But it's not just water that presents a threat. A duffer who recently hooked a shot into the drink decided to plunge in up to his shoulders to retrieve the ball. When he extended his arm and turned his head, he found himself staring into the eyes of an American crocodile.

You can imagine the story in the the Weekly World News. It would include something like this: "After the mandibles of death were finished, nothing remained but a five iron and a torn piece of plaid."

In reality the golfer escaped unharmed. But the story illustrates a new reality that humans must learn to accommodate: The endangered croc is making a comeback.

Spurred by encounters between humans and the resurgent reptiles, county parks staffers are trying to quickly educate the public. They are preparing brochures and have started placing signs in croc-accessible public areas. "The die-hard golfers who like to go after their golf balls get aggravated and want [the crocodiles] removed," explains park naturalist Paula Schneeberger. "[But] crocs are not aggressive and they mainly hunt at night."

Parks officials believe two juvenile crocodiles have taken up residence on Key Biscayne. (Crocs have been seen as far north as Broward County.) A third reptile has been sighted, but is thought to be an exotic caiman that escaped from captivity. The pair divides its time between the golf course and a recently restored tidal marsh at the nearby Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area. They feast on iguanas that can grow to the size of large cats, which the crocs catch by yanking them from low-hanging tree branches.

A hundred years ago probably several thousand crocodiles roamed the southern coast of the Florida peninsula, the only place in the United States where they are found. By the Sixties the population fell to a few hundred at most. Poachers killed or captured some and developers paved over many of the estuaries and coastal areas where the animals lived and nested.

Today the population has risen to about 600. Biologists trace the rejuvenation primarily to an increase in habitable areas. Besides restoring traditional marshes and mangroves, man has unwittingly built ideal crocodile homes at golf courses and nuclear power plants.

In the Seventies the animals began using 168 miles of cooling canals at the Turkey Point nuclear facility as a hatchery. The warm water and marly berms are perfect for the reptiles, which are shy and finicky about where they lay their eggs. These days there are between 30 and 50 crocs at Turkey Point, depending on the time of year. On a recent morning scientists counted sixteen crocodiles floating and sunning themselves along a five-mile stretch.

In fact the animals have been doing so well at Turkey Point that some migrated north to escape the crowd. (Male crocs are territorial and demand a substantial amount of space.)

But crocodiles aren't likely to overwhelm South Florida, scientists say. Although a nest can hold as many as 25 eggs, only a small percentage of the reptiles survive. Baby crocs have a plethora of predators: fish, raccoons, hawks, even the fire ant. Joe Wasilewski, a biologist who works at Turkey Point, recalls surveying nests one year and discovering an egg that swarmed with fire ants. When he returned the following day there was nothing left but the hatchling's skeleton. "We are not going to be up to our ass in crocodiles," he concludes.

There are well over one million alligators in Florida, far more than the number of crocodiles. Alligators have a wider, more square snout and are darker in color. Crocodiles have a tapered jaw, their back armor is bumpier, and they are more agile. Although the two are generally similar in size, American crocodiles in the United States rarely grow beyond fifteen feet, whereas alligators have reached nineteen feet.

Parks department naturalist Roger Hammer believes crocodiles are unfairly stigmatized. Some picnickers recently observed Hammer posting a warning sign at a county marina and asked whether the reptiles were in the lagoon. When he replied in the affirmative, they hurriedly packed their things and left. "The perception of the public is that crocs are evil animals when really the alligators are the ones to watch if you have children playing around them," Hammer insists.

The mistaken belief that crocodiles are dangerous comes from television nature programs, Hammer asserts. The shows generally feature varieties common in Africa or the Asia-Pacific area. These species are larger and more aggressive than their American brethren; they sometimes wrestle unsuspecting zebra or wildebeest to death, while American crocodiles generally trap smaller mammals, crustaceans, fish, and birds.

Hammer says there are no recorded incidents of croc attacks in Florida, but some locals tell a colorful tale. Supposedly in 1925 a croc killed a surveyor on Key Biscayne after the man blasted it twice with a shotgun. In true South Florida fashion, the croc is alleged to have survived and gone on to a successful career as a tourist attraction.

The crocs may very well become victims of their resurgence. The Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission has received dozens of complaints about them. (There are roughly 15,000 alligator complaints in Florida every year.) A woman on the Miami River who feeds ducks protested when a croc arrived and began eating the birds. Crocs have even been spotted at Bayfront Park.

Todd Hardwick, who owns a pest-control outfit called Pesky Critters, warns that problems await if a management plan is not developed soon. "These are cold-blooded reptiles and people do stupid things," he says. He believes the crocs will lose their fear as they are exposed to humans, with disastrous consequences.

The parks department decided to take action after an incident at Black Point Marina, just a few miles north of Turkey Point. A crocodile that favored the marina's lagoon became unnaturally fat feasting on discarded fish carcasses that had been tossed into the water. His length was estimated at nine feet. Fishermen claimed the reptile tried to climb into boats and disturbed blue-crab traps.

In February 1998 the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission made the unusual decision to move the croc because of its size, aggressiveness, and agility. Workers delivered the reptile to Metrozoo, where employees attempted for 40 days to make the animal forget about the marina. Park officials then released the croc into the C-111 canal that leads from the Everglades to Florida Bay. Within five months the croc returned to its former home.

This past February a community activist was walking her dog at Black Point when a fisherman warned her to be careful: Pet-and-child-eating crocodiles lurked in the water. The woman complained and the parks department took action. This time the croc earned a trip to a Collier County park. It has yet to return.

Hammer also created signs for marinas and coastal areas warning people about the crocs. The yellow metal placards show a picture of the reptile and read "Caution Crocodiles In Area" in both English and Spanish. They also admonish the public it is illegal to feed or harass the animals. "[The crocodiles] lose their fear," Hammer says. The maximum penalty for messing with a croc is a $250,000 fine and one year in federal prison. Hammer has posted about 35 signs in locations including Black Point, Matheson Hammock, Greynolds, and Haulover parks. The county parks department plans to install a total of 65. Hammer has also written a brochure that will soon be distributed to park visitors.

Ultimately naturalists hope South Floridians will embrace the crocodile rather than fear it. "How many people have seen an American crocodile in the wild?" Hammer asks. "That to me would be a nature experience to get excited about. If you want to see one, you have to come to South Florida. We have them and nobody else does."

jacob_bernstein@miaminewtimes.com

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