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Predators, humans sharing habitats a volatile mix

By David E. Williams
CNN.com

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Alligators are blamed for three women's deaths in Florida this month.

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(CNN) -- Attacks on humans by alligators, bears, mountain lions and other predators are extremely rare, but some wildlife experts say they could become more common as people and animals encroach on each others' habitats.

In recent weeks, alligators killed three women in separate attacks in Florida and a black bear killed a 6-year-old girl and seriously injured her mother and her 2-year-old brother at a campsite in Tennessee.

Alligators weren't always plentiful. Hunting and habitat loss led to a decline in the numbers of alligators in the 1950s and '60s. They were listed as endangered in 1973.

But the gators thrived under that protection and were downlisted to threatened in 1977. In 1987, the species was coming back, but was still classified as threatened -- as a measure to protect endangered crocodiles, which could be mistaken for alligators and killed.

Now, Florida officials estimate that more than 1 million wild alligators are in the state. (Watch gator hunter land an 11-foot beast -- 2:36)

The state's human population has also grown, from almost 6.8 million in 1970 to about 16 million in 2000, according to the U.S. census.

Steve Stiegler, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said that alligator attacks appeared to be "coincidental in their timing."

"Alligators are more active in general in this part of the year," he said. "That is a result of a number of factors, including the mating season. The warmer temperatures are simply increasing alligators' activity levels, and also many alligators choose to move from one water body to another during this time of year due to low water conditions or territorial factors."

But this year's conditions were not unusual, wildlife officials said.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission is still investigating the latest incidents. It says that alligators have bitten only 419 people in Florida since 1948, and of those, just 20 have been fatal

The agency said that 141 of the bites were provoked, which means the alligator was being moved, handled or harrassed when it bit.

Nationally, black bear attacks are even more unusual. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency said the April 13 incident in the Cherokee National Forest was only the second fatal attack ever recorded in the southeastern United States.

Tennessee officials believe they've killed the bear that was responsible, but are waiting for the results of DNA tests, said Daryl Ratajczak, a bear expert with the agency.

More people, more animals

Mike Conover, who studies animal-human conflict at the Berryman Institute in Utah, said the growth in human and animal populations has led to an increase in all sorts of animal attacks.

"When you have a big dangerous predator living in large numbers in an area where there are large numbers of people, you're going to have things happen that are not good." he said.

Conover said that animals are losing their fear of people and people are losing their fear of animals, "so it's a deadly combination." (Watch owner describe jumping into pond to save puppy -- 1:29)

"Fifty years ago, if somebody saw a wolf they'd be terrified, and they would go inside and bolt the front door of their house. And now, of course, people travel to Yellowstone National Park to see one and they get as close as they can to get a good photograph," Conover said.

Conover said that when people used to shoot predators on sight, mountain lions, wolves, bears and alligators knew to stay away.

"Now, with animals like alligators and bears, if they see a human it may mean that person wants to feed them," he said.

Asking for trouble

Welcoming seemingly harmless animals also can increase the risk, wildlife officials said.

"People plant food that is attractive to deer because they like to see deer. And some people even dump corn because they like seeing deer and elk in their backyard," said University of Northern Arizona professor Paul Beier, who studies mountain lions. "Mountain lions aren't stupid, they're going to go where the deer and the elk are, so that does draw them into areas where they otherwise might not be."

Leaving garbage cans open and pet food outside can cause problems, and even a family get-together can attract unwanted guests.

"People don't realize that they've been outside grilling and they haven't cleaned off the grill and there's all that beautiful steak juice and stuff and a bear that's wandering by is going to want to check that out," said Paul Hadidian, director of the Humane Society's urban wildlife program. (Watch bear scamper into pipe near Los Angeles -- :42)

Why animals attack

Conover said that animals generally attack humans for one of three reasons: to protect themselves or their offspring; to guard their territory; or to catch prey.

He said that when an animal attacks to defend itself or its territory, it is likely to stop once the person leaves.

"Whereas with a predatory attack the intention of the predator is to kill you, so the intention of the animal is not to let you escape," Conover said. "So predatory attacks are much more likely to be lethal."

Beire says he's documented 98 mountain lion attacks in the United States and Canada between 1890 and 2001. Seventeen people died in those attacks.

About 60 percent of the animals involved were underweight or sick, he found.

"But having said that, ... there's a whole bunch of cases where we have no real excuses for the animal behavior, it seems to be an adult of normal weight, in good health," he said. "I suspect those are cases of an adult trying a novel prey item, it sees humans for a day or two and says 'Hey, I'm going to try one of those.'"

He said that in many cases, the cats targeted children, because "any predator is going to, especially if it's something they've never attacked before, they're going to want to take the smallest one first."

Lose-lose proposition

Conover said that wildlife attacks are bad for both humans and animals.

"Whenever there's a bear attack we automatically have a person who is hurt or dead, and the immediate response is to kill the bear, no questions asked, because it's too dangerous not to," he said.

Also, people become afraid to use campgrounds and wildlife areas and the pressure is on public officials to reduce the numbers of bears.

"So it's a lose-lose proposition," he said.

But Hadidian said that most human encounters with wildlife are minor nuisances -- such as tipped-over garbage cans and trampled, munched-on gardens -- and can even be beneficial.

"I have people call and say, 'My goodness, I just saw a fox in my yard and it's the most exciting thing that's happened to me in years.' But you don't hear about that."

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