After nearly five days amid the noise and excitement of
Walt Disney World,
Alex and his parents headed south to enjoy a very different
experience in a very different part of Florida -- the famous
Many people think of the Everglades as a big swamp, but it's actually a wide shallow river that flows slowly down the Florida peninsula. It seems to have an endless variety of birds, like herons, cranes, vultures, and storks, and bugs, like the icky crawling kind and the annoying flying kind. For many visitors, Alex among them, the highlight of the Everglades is its alligator population.
Alligators can be easily spotted from the many trails that wind through Everglades National Park. And, not surprisingly, they can also be seen in abundance at the Everglades Alligator Farm. The farm breeds gators for their meat and their skin, and doubles as a tourist attraction.
The alligators in the alligator show were not trained. According to Gus, it's not possible to train an alligator because they're simply not smart enough. So the show starts with Gus looking over about a dozen mid-sized alligators, and gauging their moods. He does this by pulling the alligators' tails, and seeing how vigorous they are in their attempt to bite his arm off. (If this sounds better than whatever your current job is, you might want to send a resume to the Everglades Alligator Farm!)
Once Gus had selected an alligator for his performance, he idly dragged it around the pen while sharing gator facts with the audience. Alligators like to eat ducks, Gus told the crowd. And when a person is standing in water that's
An audience member suggested getting out of the water, which led Gus to point out that gators are explosively fast on land, able to move at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour for distances up to about fifteen feet.
So what, Gus asked again, should you do if an alligator sets its sights on you? Remain still? Flail about? Make noise? Keep quiet? Gus sadly shook his head at each suggestion, but never offered one of his own. Clearly, the best approach is to avoid attracting the attention of a hungry alligator.
And fortunately, that's not such a hard thing to do. Alligators are reptiles, and they generally only eat once a week. So the odds are in your favor that the alligator you encounter is probably not hungry. And an adult human, standing on dry land, is simply too large a prey for most alligators.
But, on the other hand, there have been stories of dogs as large as dalmatians being snapped off their leashes as they and their masters stroll alongside a Florida canal. (Makes you want to move right down there, doesn't it?) And Alex's parents were well aware that their son is smaller than a dalmatian. Alex could not be permitted to run happily along the shoreline, throwing rocks into the water. While out on the trails, he would remain either in his stroller or his parent's arms.
The National Park Service is certainly generous with the warning signs, both on the trails and in the visitor's centers. The signs tell us to never taunt or tease the alligators. (Shouting, "Hey Lizard Breath! Your mother's a pocketbook!" would presumably be frowned upon.) They also admonish us to always maintain a distance of at least fifteen feet from any alligator. Again, fifteen feet is the outside range for the gator's frightening burst of speed.
In theory, it should be rather simple to stay fifteen feet away from an alligator. But suppose, for example, you're on a trail that's ten feet wide. And on the side of the trail, relaxing in the hot Florida sun, is an alligator. And beyond that alligator, further down the trail, is the safety of your car.
There are three ways to handle such a situation:
The third alternative seemed to be the obvious choice, and Alex's parents would have immediately settled on that plan, were it not for the presence of an anonymous couple whom we'll call "Steve" and "Debbie."
"Debbie," seeing that her partner had less courage than a three-year-old boy, bolted. She marched right past the oblivious alligator and got on with her life, as "Steve" hung back, wringing his hands.
Alex was getting impatient. "Come on!" he urged. "Let's go! I'm not afraid!" What Alex failed to realize, of course, was that he was the one who was most vulnerable to an alligator attack. Remembering what Gus the Alligator Handler had said about alligators being intimidated by the size of an adult human, Alex's father scooped up his little boy and held him tight, while Alex's mother gripped the handles of the stroller. They then darted past the alligator, and breathed a sigh of relief when they passed safely beyond the fifteen-foot "radius of death."
"Steve," in case you're wondering, eventually summoned up the courage to pass the alligator, and caught up once more with "Debbie." We wonder, though, if their relationship will ever again be what it was.