I wouldn't call it 'normal' exactly, but...
Now, while it may seem that Florida is a dangerous place, really it generally isn't. Like anywhere you just learn what the risks are, and take steps to manage them. So, while our snakes might be scary to someone from Maine, I personally find their freezing blizzards a little intimidating. It all evens out. Unfortunately, however, right at the moment our most well-known source of mortal peril is receiving a lot of attention. I refer, of course, to the alligator, a carnivorous reptile that has reached recorded sizes in excess of nineteen feet (5.8 meters) (although not over seventeen feet (5.3 meters) in Florida). Now, I've mentioned gators before on the blog and I insisted then that they tend not to be very dangerous. This is essentially true. Gators are, like many reptiles, not the most active creatures you've ever seen. They prefer to lie around in the sun, or float in the water, and sleep when possible. They're also primarily nocturnal and thus are most active when humans are least active. All of this means that gators tend to be fairly decent neighbors.
Most of the time.
Sadly, in the last month or so, this hasn't been the case. As reported in the New York Times there have been three fatal alligator attacks in the last month. In all three cases women have been attacked- in one instance while swimming in shallow water and, in another instance, while jogging. All three attacks were fatal, which tends to be the case with gator attacks. I, of course, sympathize with the families of these three women. There are many ways to die, but being killed by an alligator is not among the good ways.
It's important to note, however, that alligators are not by and large any more aggressive than other large predators. Since the 1970's there have been around twenty fatal alligator attacks. By comparison to something as rare as a shark attack, alligator attacks are extremely uncommon. As you can see most have occurred in the last decade or so, and all have taken place in Florida. What does this suggest? Well, among other things, it suggests that the rapid population growth experienced in Florida, a trend that has only accelerated in recent years, is bringing more alligators and humans into contact that before. Perhaps more importantly, many of these new contacts are between old gators, and immigrants from other parts of the United States where gators are unknown. Therefore, the proper way to handle a gator is also unknown. Certainly this was the case with two year old Alexandria Murphy, who was killed in 2001 only months after her family relocated to Florida.
So, as a sort of weird public service, let's talk about gators.
-First, as I said above, gators are large predators. They are generally not interested in hurting people and so the sight of a gator should not cause panic. However, there are exceptions to every rule, so it helps to remain wary.
-Gators tend to become most aggressive around breeding season. Males become territorial and will fight other males, females build nests and protect them. During early summer, any encounter with a large gator should be cut short. If you find yourself in a gator nest (a large mound of reeds/grass and mud) leave immediately.
-Unlike mountain lions and, to a lesser extent, bears, making yourself look bigger will NOT deter an alligator. Gators will attack, kill, and eat cows, so size is not really all that impressive to them. However, as reptiles alligators do not need to eat often, so most of the time a gator you encounter has no more interest in eating you than you do in eating a chair.
-If you are on land, even back somewhat from shore, you are not safe. Alligators can walk on land and are capable of short sprints that exceed speeds of thirty miles an hour. If you believe a gator is behaving suspiciously, give it a wide berth.
-Keep in mind that alligators are very well concealed. Keep a close eye on things resembling logs floating low in the water. This is particularly true if the "log" is near shore. Alligators commonly lurk in shallow water, wait for an animal to come down to drink, and then attack.
-If you are being chased by a gator do NOT run in a straight line. The gator can outrun you. It cannot, however, turn quickly at that speed, so run in a zig-zag pattern.
-Climbing a tree will not work. Gators can jump considerable distances into the air. Your best bet is to get inside a structure or vehicle where the alligator cannot, or will not, follow.
-Some foolhardy people may tell you to grab a gator's jaws and hold them shut as the gator is too weak to reopen them. This is true, but a bad idea. Alligators are incredibly powerful and have a wide variety of ways to deal with you even if you succeed in holding their jaws shut. All you will succeed in doing is pissing it off.
-If you have reason to believe that a large alligator is in your neighborhood (a particularly good indication is a sudden increase in the number of dogs/cats that are disappearing) report it to the proper authorities.
Well, this has been fun and educational. If you have any other questions about gators... call the park service.