While most stories about "human habituated" wildlife in national parks revolve around bears, a recent incident in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana shows the danger that can arise when alligators are fed by visitors.
A 100-pound researcher apparently stalked by an alligator in the park survived an attack by the 7-foot 'gator with only a compound hand fracture, according to park rangers.
The 29-year-old from Louisiana State University was taking soil samples along the park's Barataria Visitor Center trail last Wednesday when the 250-pound alligator snapped its jaws closed on her hand, Chief Ranger John Hughes noted in his report. While the researcher earlier had observed the alligator watching her from about 200 yards away, she lost sight of it while she headed down the boardwalk, he added.
"A thorough investigation into the incident revealed that the alligator had most likely been the victim of repeated illegal human interaction involving human food and had been 'following' the researcher in hopes of obtaining a handout," the chief wrote. "The researcher had no idea that the alligator was underneath the boardwalk, which stands about 18 inches above the water. When she knelt down on the walkway to lean over and retrieve a plastic tube that had been inserted into the water and soil below her, the alligator came from behind and underneath her and grabbed onto her right hand, which was in the water.
"The alligator immediately began to rotate while clamped down on her. The 100-pound researcher was able to free her hand from the gator’s mouth, though, and then call for help," wrote Chief Hughes.
Responding to the unnamed researcher's call was the park's natural resource manager, Dusty Pate, who found the woman within a minute of receiving the call. He was soon joined by protection ranger Mike Callais, who began emergency first aid to stop the bleeding and secure the wounded hand, which had multiple bite and tear wounds as well as a compound fracture, said Chief Hughes.
As soon as the woman was transported to a hospital, the park immediately closed all trails and boardwalks in the area of the attack. Additional personnel were called in to locate the alligator. After a short time, noted Chief Hughes, a 7-foot, 250-pound alligator was located very close to the area where the attack occurred. Due to public safety concerns, the alligator was killed by law enforcement rangers.
Chief Hughes said rangers believe the alligator had come to associate humans with foods because the reptiles usually avoid humans.
"When you go to an area the reptiles will typically leave. They don’t want any interactions with humans," the chief said Tuesday during a phone call. "When you see one that suddenly approaches your location, it typically indicates that its been fed. That’s what tends to make us believe, when we started doing the investigation, that this alligator had been fed. ... It was following along stalking the research, looking for a handout.”
And just what sort of food do Jean Lafitte's alligators usually associate with humans?
“The type of food that we see down here is the typical marshmallow. The reason I say that is marshmallows will float," said Chief Hughes. "You throw it into the water and it will float and the alligator will approach it and eat it.”
And, like most Grand Teton or Yellowstone or Yosemite bears that come to associate park visitors with food, this alligator had to be put down because it had turned into a threat to visitors, he said.
"This is the exact situation where this one was not scared of a human being, it was not scared of humans at all, unfortunately," said Chief Hughes.