Editorial | Patrolling alligators is a tricky task

The following editorial appeared Friday in The (Hilton Head) Island Packet:

Under a S.C. Department of Natural Resources rule, alligators are to be killed if people feed them, if they are disrupting traffic or if they’re observed repeatedly crossing roads.

At first blush, this makes sense to us. Officials cannot tolerate alligators that pose an immediate threat to humans or ones that could cause wrecks. Public safety must come first.

But as is the case with most things, following the agency’s nuisance rule is not as clear-cut as it sounds. In fact, it can be as murky as the bottom of a lagoon.

Take for example, the case of Big Al. Earlier this month, the massive gator, estimated to be about 50 years old, was on the move, likely looking for a lady friend for mating season. He was relocated once, but he returned. And so he was relocated a second time.

No word yet on whether Big Al will figure out how to get back home again – an occurrence that certainly wouldn’t bother some neighbors who, for years, have enjoyed watching the big gator bask in the sun and swim in a lagoon bordering a Port Royal Plantation golf course.

During his years, he hasn’t bothered anyone, said Douglas N. Skelly, who manages a condominium complex near Big Al’s lagoon. “You don’t get to be 50-plus years old like Big Al if you’re aggressive,” Skelly said.

But others weren’t too keen on the animal being relocated instead of being destroyed, particularly a homeowner who doesn’t live too far from where Big Al was released.

So what should be done in cases like that of Big Al? Yes, he’s been observed crossing roads. But he’s not known to be aggressive. Heck, he’s beloved, even getting his own Facebook page five years ago when he ambled across the street and residents worried he might be destroyed.

That’s why DNR rightfully allows for leniency in following its nuisance rule, allowing wranglers the ability to make judgment calls based on their expertise.

“It’s a nuisance rule, not a law,” said Robert McCullough, a DNR spokesman. “We give (wranglers) leeway to determine what is best. They’re on the scene.”

For example, a 3-foot alligator who scuttles across the road is not the same as a 10-foot one that suns itself in the middle of a road for hours on end, he said. And a gator who crosses a road because its lagoon has dried up and is searching for a new home is a different situation from one that makes it a daily habit to clog traffic along a busy road.

We’re glad that DNR allows for wiggle room. Individual circumstances should dictate the response.

Wranglers who make obvious wrong decisions should and do have to pay a price. For example, a contractor who recently shot and killed a gator on Folly Beach in front of a crowd will not be called upon again by DNR.

Area residents have a role to play too in preserving public safety. Stay away from alligators. Keep pets away too. And discourage visitors who may not know the law from feeding or approaching the animals.

Alligators are a special part of our region that were here before we were. The animals deserve respect – and space. Let’s give it to them.