There’s a tender heart beneath the tough hide
By Candice Dyer
To detractors of alligators, Gatorology 101—a forty-five-minute interactive class at Jekyll’s Horton Pond—offers some snappy comebacks. The creatures’ ancient physiques link us to the dinosaur age; they play an essential role in the ecosystem by regulating deer and raccoon populations; and they’re as trainable in their learned behavior as dogs.
“They’re among the most maligned and misunderstood animals,” says Dr. Kimberly Andrews, a research coordinator with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. “People ironically have this dichotomous response. They fear them, but at the same time they want to feed and interact with them.”
Neither approach is wise. What Andrews and her colleagues try to instill in the island’s visitors is a healthy respect for boundaries. Keep a distance of at least fifty feet when observing alligators, and certainly don’t feed them. It only habituates them to humans, which is dangerous for everyone.
Jekyll’s alligator population is estimated at 125, and researchers have installed GPS loggers on several of the adults. “We’ve really gotten to know these creatures in great detail,” Andrews says, ticking off their names. “Chico, Woody, Slayer, and Jesus. We hope that by telling their stories, people will feel a connection.”
Another fun biofact is that alligators make exceptionally nurturing mothers. “They communicate with their babies with this sweet chirping sound,” Andrews says. “The mother opens each egg delicately with her teeth and then very tenderly carries her babies to the water, where they live with her for a couple of years.”