- Associated Press - Thursday, July 7, 2016

DAPHNE, Ala. (AP) - When Tiffany Durant brings her family to the unusual preserve in Daphne, the hope is to spot an alligator lurking in the murky water of D’Olive Creek.

But during one recent visit to Gator Alley Boardwalk, Durant instead spotted a group of visitors ignoring the hard-to-miss “Do Not Feed the Alligator” signs while tossing marshmallows to the large reptiles.

“It became a huge problem,” said Durant, who was with her two children on Wednesday - Tyler, 10, and Ali, 7 - for a walk along the boardwalk after Daphne city officials dedicated the new-look park that received a $769,000 overhaul.

“Not only could you not get across the boardwalk (from a large crowd of people tossing food at the alligators), but then the alligators were drawn further in. The police had to stop and tell them to stop tossing marshmallows.”

Durant added, “We want them to find their own food. We don’t want to attract them.”

Daphne officials are keeping an eye on safety violations at the park amid growing attention about alligator and human interactions following a June 14 tragedy at a Disney resort. Two-year-old Lane Graves of Nebraska was dragged into the resort’s lagoon by an alligator and killed. The incident prompted criticism about a lack of signage warning tourists about the potential dangers of alligators.

Though the Daphne boardwalk is considered safe and is elevated above the muddy D’Olive Creek, it does allow a rarity in Alabama: A controlled, yet direct interaction with alligators in their natural habitat.

Said Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood: “You have a way here to safely and to get down and interact with the alligators in their environment. You’re not wading through the water. You are getting on top of a water body in which they reside. It’s unique in that regard and makes it special.”

But with that interaction brings risks in the form of human misbehavior. The incident of alligator feeding in Daphne occurred around the same time as the high-profile tragedy in Orlando and has sparked concern in Daphne.

City officials are now considering ordinances to restrict behavior. Alligator experts claim that feeding wild alligators makes them bolder and more apt to seek out humans as sources of food.

“We want to make sure people don’t ignore the rules,” Haygood said. “It’s been suggested that the only way to do that is through a fine. Right now, our police don’t have a way to enforce it. We’d like to think all of our residents and visitors would be good neighbors and obey the rules. But, for some, penalties are required. It will be a discussion point.”

Also, the city is expected to install security cameras around the park.

The park, meanwhile, does not have any set hours even though alligators are more apt to search for food during dawn and evening hours. The park is sandwiched between several hotels and serves as an extension to the popularly-used Eastern Shore National Recreation Trail.

“It allows people staying at the hotels to go from one side to get to the other safely,” said Councilman John Lake, who represents the area. “You don’t really want to put hours on it.”

Said Haygood: “It has been difficult to control access to it. You have access points to private property as well.”

Alligator attacks in Alabama are extremely rare. Florida, which has the highest concentration of alligators in the U.S., has reported 337 alligator attacks on humans since 1948. Alabama ranks fifth among U.S. states, with only five reported attacks.

At the Daphne park, there have been no alligator attacks on humans since it first opened in 2004.

“I think we have about 12 years of experience here that shows what works and what doesn’t work,” said Lake. “It’s the illusion of being able to be close to the alligators and not being able to get near them is what this facility allows for.”

Coastal Alabama is the state’s hot spot for alligator sightings with the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta serving as the most common waterway where they are found. But alligators have been spotted as far north as the Tennessee and Elk rivers.

And alligator sight-seeing is a tourism attraction for the coastal area. Alligator Alley in Summerdale, located not far from the beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, serves as a refuge for alligators rescued from dangerous places. The Gator Ranch, which has seen a boom in tourism since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, is located west of Mobile in Moss Point, Mississippi.

But no park in the state is as unique as Daphne’s Gator Alley Boardwalk because of its close proximity to some of the region’s most traveled roadways. The boardwalk snakes underneath U.S. 98, which is among the most heavily traveled roads in fast-growing Baldwin County. The park is also a short distance from Interstate 10, which links Mobile to Baldwin County.

“It’s so readily accessible,” said Haygood.

The park’s renovations are paid for with a $320,000 grant through the Federal Highway Administration, with the city of Daphne’s lodging tax picking up the rest of the tab at $448,600.

The work includes a new 30-space parking lot, 700 tons of ledger rock that helps manage stormwater runoff, 41,000 brick pavers that also protect the park from runoff and 4,900 plant species native to south Alabama.

Signs highlight some of the environmental improvements at the park. But alligators are the main attraction.

On Wednesday, Durant and her children saw two alligators that they estimated to be at around six to nine feet in length.

“They are cool to watch,” Ali Durant said.

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