A pair of yellow eyes bobbing just above the surface of the water. A dark, scaly spine gliding through the marsh. A wide, rounded snout full of sharp teeth. Alligators spark fear and curiosity in many, but these prehistoric reptiles aren’t nearly as dangerous as you might think.
While tragedies certainly occur—like when an alligator snatches a child from his father’s grasp—such horrific events are few and far between. Still, they grab headlines, causing would-be adventurers to quake in fear at the very sight of one of these wily reptiles. But with a little understanding and at least an ounce of respect, you can avoid a tussle with a gator and escape with your life if worse comes to worst.
Get to know the American alligator
We generally fear the things we don’t understand. And as wild animals go, alligators are pretty misunderstood. Often perceived as aggressive, threatening man-killers (that might be a more apt description of alligators’ cousins, crocodiles), gators are often just the opposite: creatures that prefer to be left alone.
They are carnivores, but humans aren’t one of their preferred meals. They’re more defensive than aggressive, too, so attacks on people are extremely rare. In fact, you’re more likely to drown near an alligator than you are to be attacked by the animal itself.
For example, even though Florida is home to more than 1 million of these creatures, the state averages only six alligator bite victims per year and gators killed just 26 people there between 1948 and 2020, according to a report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Still, these large reptiles should be treated with respect. If you’re in an area or near a body of water where alligators live—and they generally populate the coastal US from Texas to North Carolina—it’s wise to be wary. Alligators can inhabit lakes, rivers, and swamps, in fresh or salt water, and full-grown adults can range from 6 to 13 feet long (though the average is closer to 7 feet). The larger they are, the more damage they can cause.
How to avoid alligators
You can’t be hurt by an alligator if you avoid them altogether. Fortunately, they’re trying to stay away from you as much as you’re trying not to run into them, according to Ruth Elsey, biologist manager at Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, repeating the old adage that applies to most creatures.
So if an alligator sees or hears you coming (they have acute senses, including hearing), it will likely make itself scarce and you may never even know it was there. Even so, assume the creatures are hiding under brush or just beneath the surface of the water, especially in places like Louisiana or Florida where they could be living in nearly any body of water.
If you do see one (or several), keep your distance—at least 15 to 30 feet. While alligators aren’t typically aggressive, they will protect themselves or their nests if they feel threatened. Alligators can be active year-round, especially during warmer summer months and between dusk and dawn when they do most of their hunting, but you should be extra wary in June during nesting season when they will be protecting their eggs, and in the spring when mating season begins.
No matter the time of day, however, avoid swimming or wading (that goes for pets, too) in areas where alligators may live or feed. And whatever you do, don’t try to see how close you can get for a better look, especially if there’s a nest nearby. If you find an alligator and it starts hissing, you’re too close.
Men, especially, should take note of this guidance, as they seem to be the ones most likely to ignore it. According to a 2019 report in The Journal of Wildlife Management, more than 81 percent of alligator bite victims in Florida from 1948 to 2014 were male (a similar percentage to snakebite victims as chance would have it).
But no matter who you are, the “stay clear” rule applies whether you’re on land or water, and the latter is an especially dangerous place to be within striking distance of an alligator. They can be hard to spot and are much faster swimmers than people. In fact, nearly 94 percent of Florida bite victims were injured in water or near the shore. What’s more, the severity of the bite seems directly correlated to the depth of the water: the deeper the water, the more serious the injuries.
So if you are swimming in an area where gators might reside, do so with at least one friend who can help you keep an eye out for potential dangers.
[Related: What to do if you encounter a bison]
And whatever you do, never feed wild alligators—it’s unhealthy for the animals and bad for human-gator interactions. “They’re going to start to associate humans with food and that’s a bad thing,” Elsey says. “They are reasonably intelligent and they’ll learn where to get free handouts.” In fact, more than 34 percent of bite incidents in Florida occurred because people were feeding the animals.
“It’s something I can’t hammer home enough: don’t feed gators,” Elsey says. That includes tossing fish guts overboard when fishing.
What to do if an alligator attacks
If you do get too close or are surprised by an alligator, you still have a chance to escape. On land, the oversized reptiles can move fast, but only over short distances. They have no aerobic metabolism, which means little oxygen gets to their muscles and they tire quickly. But if you’re within a few meters of their toothy snout, you’re in the danger zone and one quick snap could end with your hand or foot in their vice-like jaws.
The key, then, is to move away quickly. “Depart the area in a straight line,” says Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida. “It’s absolutely a myth that you zigzag. It just keeps you in the strike radius of that alligator longer.” It shouldn’t take more than a few very brisk strides to get away as the animal will likely give up after 15 or 20 feet, he says.
On the other hand, if an alligator picks a fight in the water, you no longer have the upper hand: the animal is a much better swimmer than you. It might try to roll after it latches on to a limb. If that happens, don’t try to stop it. Roll with it, but fight like your life depends on it—because it might.
Poke it in the eyes, shove an arm down its throat, and punch it on the end of its sensitive snout. The key is to convince the alligator that you’re not worth the trouble, Mazzotti says.
He also points out that alligators often bite and then immediately let go (more than 36 percent of the time according to The Journal of Wildlife Management) or bite and then loosen their grip to readjust. If they do, take that opportunity to escape.
But if you weren’t quick enough, don’t try to squirm loose or pry it’s jaws open—you won’t be able to. Just fight back as hard as you can until the animal lets go.
Correction April 14, 2021: This story previously did not include North Carolina as alligator habitat.