Cerabino: The conventional wisdom on alligator tactics takes a turn

It’s unsettling to discover that something you’ve “known” for a long time isn’t true.

It happened to me this week when reading a newspaper story titled, “What to do when an alligator attacks.”

I’ve been living in South Florida for more than 30 years now, more than enough time to master this basic citizenship skill of alligator countermeasures. Or so I thought.

After all, knowing how to handle an alligator attack is as elemental in South Florida as knowing that you take a raincoat to SunFest, stay away from Costco on Saturday afternoons, and never get behind a pickup truck on I-95 that’s hauling lightweight patio furniture.

In the news story, the first tip on how to handle a charging alligator was to run away. OK, I knew that. But I had long ago gleaned that you shouldn’t just dash off in a direct path. That to really fool the alligator and its poor peripheral vision you needed to do a kind of Three Stooges zigzag retreat, running in a serpentine fashion away from the alligator.

In the news story, Todd Hardwick, a South Florida alligator trapper, called the zigzag maneuver a “big myth.” Alligators, he said, run very fast, and the weaving isn’t going to help.

“If it’s coming at you, run as fast as you can,” he said.

Imagine that. All these years I’ve been thinking, well if that alligator over there starts running toward me, I’m going to start running sideways this way, then pivot and start running sideways the other way. What a way to die that would be.

I can see a bystander say: “It’s so sad. We were just yelling at that old man to just run away in straight line, but he kept doing this drunken stagger from side to side. The alligator barely had to trot to get him.”

But maybe this alligator trapper was wrong. I wasn’t ready to abandon my serpentine escape plan just yet.

So I checked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which had this to say on the subject:

“Although alligators are capable of running, they use this gait to flee threatening situations. There is no documented evidence of alligators running after people or any other land animal to prey upon them,” the Florida agency wrote.

“Also, there is no basis to the myth that you should run in zigzag patterns to avoid a charging alligator. If you do find yourself in the extremely unlikely position of avoiding a lunging alligator, you should run in a straight line away from the alligator and its habitat, which is where the alligator will most likely retreat to.”

So where did I pick up this zigzag advice?

According to the website How Stuff Works: “This saying, which is so old and so widespread that it’s virtually impossible to determine where or why it was ever started, implies a couple of things: One, it implies that an alligator is likely to chase you a long distance on land. Two, it implies that alligators can run faster than humans — at least when they’re running in a straight line.”

Alligators, it seems, have no real desire to chase anybody on land. They attack their prey with a quick lunge in or near the water and then drag them down.

Authorities think that’s what happened to Shizuka Matsuki, a 47-year-old Broward County woman who was walking her two dogs near the edge of Silver Lakes Rotary Nature Park in Davie last week. A 12-foot alligator is believed to have snatched Matsuki, by biting her arm, and dragged her into the water, where she died.

Although there are millions of alligators in the state, alligator attacks on humans are extremely rare. Before last week’s death, there were two fatalities in Florida caused by alligator attacks in the past 10 years, the Florida Wildlife Commission reported.

“Today, many residents seek waterfront homes, and water-related recreational activities are popular. As more people are drawn to the water, more alligator-human interactions can occur, creating a greater potential for conflict. But, alligators seldom bite people and fatalities from such occurrences are rare,” the Florida agency reported.

“Over the last 10 years, Florida has averaged six unprovoked bites per year that are serious enough to require professional medical treatment,” the wildlife agency wrote. “The frequency of these serious bites is variable but there has not been a significant trend in the past 10 years.”

“The likelihood of a Florida resident being seriously injured during an unprovoked alligator incident in Florida is roughly only 1 in 3.2 million.”

You’re in much more peril in the Costco parking lot. And by the way, if confronted there, I suggest a zigzag retreat.

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