Friday, May 10, 2013

Wildlife Dangers and Safety

A sign at one of the local parks. The park includes a large ring of pavement that cuts through a former rice farm. The land now includes a very large swathe of tidal marsh and forest.
Warnings are something that shouldn't be taken lightly. If you see one, pay attention. They've been placed there for a reason.

Like many people, I enjoy the outdoors. I'm a relatively frequent visitor to local parks, a number of which are fairly untouched patches of wilderness with unpaved trails. As such, it is vital for me to be aware of what dangers there may be on those trails. I live in a city where you can go maybe a mile in one direction or another and come across a place where you can possibly come across some quite dangerous animals.

Some people may be surprised by how pervasive alligators are, for example. A lot of people think they're only found in Florida or Louisiana. That, however, is a mere fraction of their range. The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) has a range along the coast of the United States all the way from a very small part of Virginia to Texas, extending north into Arkansas and Oklahoma. The only real restrictions to their range are cold winters and the salt content of a body of water. They can tolerate short periods in salty water, but are not adapted to deal with long-term exposure to high levels of salt.

A young alligator found at the same park as the sign above
Where I am, alligators are a rather frequent sight. They thrive in the moist environments that are so common in the area. I have seen a number of them varying in size from three feet or so, like the one seen here, to about eight feet in length. I also know a number of people who have seen far larger gators. My father, for example, came across one that was over twelve feet long when he was out kayaking.

Though small alligators are unlikely to kill you, they can still do quite a bit of damage if they bite. Even worse, very young alligators emit a distinctive cry when they feel threatened that will cause mother alligators to come investigating. Someone who made the very bad decision of messing with a baby alligator could quite easily find themselves facing a very large, very dangerous adult.

So, how to you keep yourself safe around alligators? The main way is to keep your distance. Don't feed, touch, or otherwise bother the animal in any way. Do not swim where alligators are known to live. They can be quite fast over short distances on land, and a distance of at least sixty feet should be maintained with adults. They're even faster in the water. Don't corner the gator, as it may feel that it is in danger and can become dangerous fast. If you are boating nearby, do not panic if an alligator on a bank enters the water. It likely feels threatened and is looking for safety. Also, I repeat, for goodness sake don't bloody feed the thing! I have expressed before my opinions on feeding wild animals, and alligators are one of those animals that should never, ever, EVER be fed. An alligator that views humans as a source of food is extremely dangerous.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, found at the same park as the alligator
Snakes may or may not be dangerous, depending on what species you're dealing with. There are about forty species of snake to be found in my area, some with far greater frequency than others. Of those snakes, six species are venomous: the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus), pigmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius), and Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius).

One of the most important parts of snake safety is identification. While I may not be able to always recall all of their common names off the top of my head, I know what all of the local venomous species look like. I remember well the lessons I learned many years ago at the Georgia Southern University Center for Wildlife Education. Except for the coral snake, which is a highly unusual species to come across, all of these snakes have arrow-shaped heads with distinct necks rather than the rounded heads of all the native non-venomous species. Luckily, all of these species are also fairly small compared to snakes that are found in other areas. This means that the safe distance for these species is less than with other, larger snakes. However, this doesn't mean you should approach a venomous snake. Indeed, it is best not to approach any wild snake as you are likely to be perceived as a threat. Even the smallest non-venomous snakes can cause quite painful bites. 

Of course, this is another case where keeping your distance is the easiest way to stay safe around venomous snakes. However, being fairly small creatures, snakes can hide quite easily. A number of species prefer to tuck themselves into holes for various reasons, including temperature regulation and hunting purposes. This is one major reason why debris should be cleared from yards, especially in areas that children or pets frequent. In addition, caution must be taken during treks outside. Don't stick your hands in holes without looking first and be careful where you step, especially around logs and other places where snakes are known to be found. Light your path at night so that you can see what's on the ground, including any snakes you may come across.

If you do happen to come across a snake, it's best to calmly step back and walk around it. Snakes really just want to go about their business and, most often, bites occur when someone messes with the snake. If you don't pose a threat to the animal, it shouldn't pose a threat to you. Stepping on the snake is also a reason people are bit, which is one of many reasons why you should wear closed-toed shoes and long pants in the wilderness.

It also must be noted that pets can potentially be in more danger from wild animals than humans. They are curious creatures and it isn't uncommon for them to stick their noses where they shouldn't. They should always be under supervision in potentially dangerous areas. If the dog is approaching a wild animal, especially a potentially dangerous one, it should be removed immediately for the safety of everyone involved. Also, there is an option for concerned dog owners living in areas with a lot of dangerous snakes known as "snake proofing." It is a form of training that will give a dog a healthy fear of snakes.

Snakes and alligators are perhaps the greatest concerns in my area, but they are definitely not the only potentially dangerous animals to be found. We also have American black bears, alligator snapping turtles, bobcats, wild boar, whitetail deer, coyotes and a number of smaller animals that can deliver a nasty bite or potentially carry diseases like rabies.

While this information is most relevant for my area, everyone who intends to spend a lot of time in the wilderness should be aware of the dangers they may come across.

Sources are Animal Diversity Web, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: How to be safe around alligators, and Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: How to be safe around snakes. Images are from myself, my significant other, or are copyright free from Wikimedia Commons: one by myself, two from Wikimedia, three and four by my SO.

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