- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) - They’ve been spotted crawling across lawns, basking in the sun along busy highways and peering out from golf course water hazards.

They’re alligators, and they’ve always been a part of the landscape in the Sunshine State.

But the death of a 2-year-old Nebraska boy, pulled underwater June 14 at a swimming lake at a Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, is raising new questions about how to keep alligators and people out of each other’s way.

Alligators have been removed from swimming lakes at Florida Gulf Coast University and at Lake Avalon at Sugden Park in East Naples, but university officials and Collier County officials said they don’t consider their lakes to have an alligator problem.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has fielded 3,225 calls in Lee County and 1,479 calls in Collier County about nuisance alligators since 2014. Last year alone, FWC trappers removed more than 7,500 nuisance alligators statewide, FWC data show.

When the FWC gets a complaint about a nuisance alligator, it doesn’t necessarily mean an FWC trapper will remove the gator. To be removed, the gator must be at least 4 feet long and there must be legal access to its location. Once trapped, alligators are either euthanized or taken to an alligator farm. Alligators are not relocated because they often try to return.

Florida wildlife officials released records in the wake of the Disney tragedy that showed 240 nuisance alligators had been trapped on Walt Disney World property over the past decade.

FGCU Lt. Jim Slapp said “two or three” alligators have been removed in the past decade from the campus swimming lake, which the university shares with boaters from Miromar Lakes. The lake’s swimming section is staffed by lifeguards during open hours and is closed after dark, Slapp said. He said he has worked for FGCU since 2008 and knows of no alligator-related injuries.

University police have fielded almost 100 alligator complaints since 2010, according to police dispatch records. Many times, FGCU reptile experts or groundskeepers can move the alligators along if they don’t leave an area on their own, Slapp said. Other times, trappers are contacted to remove the alligator.

FGCU makes wildlife awareness, including alligators, part of their new student orientation, and the campus is dotted with signs warning about alligators and advising people what to do when they see one.

“We are here, basically, in the middle of their environment,” Slapp said.

Collier County is considering putting up alligator signs at Lake Avalon, Eagle Lakes park and in other county parks with drainage ponds. Officials are reviewing how to word the signs, said county parks spokesman Daniel Christenbury.

Christenbury estimated that two to three alligators are removed each year from county parks; the most recent removals came from Lake Avalon and Eagle Lakes, also in East Naples.

The Lake Avalon alligator was spotted in cattails on the other side of the lake from the swimming area, Christenbury said. Skiing instructors and fishermen on the lake every day help park rangers look out for alligators that he said are quickly removed to prevent alligators from taking a hold there and to keep park visitors safe.

“I think it’s reasonable to say there are no alligators in Lake Avalon,” he said.

With the renewed interest in alligator conflicts, Zach Marchetti said he feels the pressure.

As the Naples Zoo’s animal care supervisor for ectotherms - animals such as alligators that depend on outside sources of heat - Marchetti sees it as part of his job to educate zoo visitors.

“It’s something that I take very seriously and always have,” Marchetti said. “It is up to us to learn to live alongside them very safely, whether it’s gators or sharks or tigers. We need all of those animals.”

The zoo houses 17 alligators, ranging in length from 7 to 14 feet. Each day zookeepers hand-feed the gators for public shows and deliver a message: Don’t feed the gators.

Marchetti said most alligator attacks can be traced back to the gator being fed by people. Naturally, gators are fearful of humans, he said. Their diet consists of small prey, like turtles, fish and aquatic birds, so it’s unnatural for them to go after humans.

The problem is twofold, he said. There are the tourists who aren’t familiar with the dangers of alligators - like the ones who visit the Naples Zoo and witness Marchetti’s talk - and the locals who are overconfident around the predators.

“We have to assume that they will do the worst at all times,” he said. “Never expect them to be nice or tame, because once you do cut corners, that’s going to get you in trouble.”

Marchetti recommends keeping a 12- to 15-foot berth from a gator on land and in water. An agitated gator may hiss, growl, open its mouth or even lunge toward its threat.

It only takes one or two feedings from a human for a gator to lose its natural fear, Marchetti said. If you spot someone feeding a gator, it should be reported to FWC, he said.

“It’s very important that we work together so that residences, tour guides, tourists, everyone understands why it is so important not to feed alligators,” Marchetti said. “The biggest thing is treating them with respect and giving them their space.”

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Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, http://www.naplesnews.com

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