Understanding and living among Florida's wildlife in Volusia County and beyond
I've lived in Florida for 10 years, and there is one thing that I've noticed that stands out. A lot of people fear the wildlife here (especially if they are not native to the area). This fear largely comes from not knowing much about the animals that they fear. People spot a 2-foot alligator in the pond and they want it gone. They know bears live in the area and they want them dead, rather than take steps to peacefully coincide. They see a snake rear it's head in the backyard and they are immediately grabbing a shovel to kill it (and then post a picture of its dead body online to brag).
It's sad to see people immediately want to kill the Florida wildlife simply because they don't understand how to live near it and because they have so much fear of it. We are avid hikers, and we often come across alligators and snakes while out on a hike. I mindfully keep an eye out for them, so that I can address the situation appropriately if I happen to spot them. The alligators and snakes have never (knock on wood) posed a problem for us. We take a picture and calmly move around it and move on our way. These animals do not want to hurt people and will usually only do so if they have been harassed by humans, fed by humans, or if you happen to come across their eggs/cubs (and in 10 years, we haven't, knock on wood).
People want to immediately remove and kill these animals out of fear. I get that, we all have our fears, but it's a good idea to look at and get real with the facts on them. My fear is of large dogs. People who know me, know that I have a phobia of large dogs that stems from my childhood. However, the statistics support that fear, because there are around 4.5 million dog bites per year (bites that are bad enough to require medical care), with one in every 5 becoming infected, and around 28 people pear year die from dog attacks. I know that people say that it's the small dogs that bite more, and perhaps that is so, but a small dog isn't going to overpower me and possibly kill me, so the phobia tends to be with those dogs that are big, powerful, and I know could maul me to death.
Alligators, on the other hand, have much lower statistics for bites and killing people. According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, in 2016, there has been 7 major bites this year, and one fatality. Most of the years on their yearly records chart, there are zero fatalities. When you review the deaths that have occurred, you see that most of them have resulted when people were swimming in lakes, canals, etc. According to the University of Florida, there is a nearly zero chance of dying from a venomous snake bite in the U.S., because our medical system has anti-venom and can usually administer it to save lives, and death from their bite averages about 1 in 50 million people. If you want to learn more about the anti-venom, I highly recommend taking the kids to the DeLand Reptile Center, where you can watch the snakes being "milked" so that anti-venom can be made. The University of Florida reports that there are around 7-8,000 venomous snake bites in the U.S. each year, with 5-6 dying from it each year. And black bears, it appears, have killed only 61 people in the U.S. since 1900.
As you can see, I have a greater reason to fear dogs than others have of fearing alligators, snakes, and bears. Not to mention that unlike alligators, snakes, and bears, dogs will come toward you, while those other animals will try to head the other direction to avoid you.
One of the reasons we don't have as much fear of alligators, snakes, and bears, is that because we are avid hikers, I wanted our family to learn a lot about them. That way, we know what to do to try and avoid run-ins with them, and how to live more peacefully with them. After all, this is Florida and these animals are a big part of the environment here. Everything in nature is connected, so when you pull on one string (kill every snake you see), then there are other issues that come into play. I am a Florida Master Naturalist, and we have taken numerous classes as a family and participated in events where we could become more educated on living with Florida wildlife, including snakes, bears, and alligators. I have read nature and wildlife books and other information, and I share that info with the family. We have taken classes offered through the county and at various environmental and nature centers throughout the state and country.
Having said all of that, here are some tips to keep in mind when it comes to living among Florida's wildlife:
- Alligators. If they are under 4 feet in length, they are not usually considered a nuisance and should be left alone. At times, you may spot one in your backyard pond (as I have), but they often move on after a few hours or so. If they are over 4 feet long and they are being a nuisance (meaning they are posing a threat to people and pets) then the state has a removal program. If it's over 4 feet, they issue a permit for a trapper to catch and kill (and then the trapper is paid around $30 from the state). Alligators this size are not relocated, they are killed. You should only call about an alligator if it is a nuisance (it's posing a danger, not that you just spotted it). Also, never swim in areas that are not designated swimming areas. This goes for lakes, ponds, the springs, etc. Swimming in areas not designated as swim areas will greatly increase your risks of having an unsavory run-in with an alligator. Never feed or harass alligators either. Just let them be. Once they get used to humans feeding them (they become habituated), they become dangerous and will end up being killed. A fed alligator is a dead alligator. When we are hiking and we come across alligators, they are usually near the water's edge. We stay on the trail and we take a picture and keep moving along, leaving them alone. If you go hiking, leave your dog at home. While the alligator isn't wanting to seek out humans hiking through the woods, dogs are alligator bait and will increase your chances of having an unhappy run-in with them. Therefore, it's not a good idea to have your dog with you when you go hiking, kayaking, or swimming in lakes and springs. Alligators see dogs as prey, but they don't see humans as prey.
- Bears. If you live in an area that is known for getting bears, take measures to not do things to draw them near your home. Get bear proof trash cans, never feed them (a fed bear is a dead bear), keep things cleaned up that they may be interested in. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offers info on how to help keep them away from your home. When out hiking, we tend to make some noise, so that we alert bears that people are hiking through. You can buy a bear bell to hang on your back pack, or you can simply clap your hands periodically so that you never surprise a bear. In my Florida Master Naturalist classes, I was taught that if you are out hiking and come across a bear that spots you, to get your group together, stand arm and arm, and make yourself look like one very big object, and make lots of noise to scare it away. This way, it looks like you are a big object that it doesn't want to mess with and will take off. We haven't seen bears on our hikes (knock on wood), but our family knows various things to do to help avoid crossing paths with them, and what to do if we should.
- Snakes. I've seen plenty of snakes since living in Florida. Just this morning I saw a baby one on our front porch. When my husband was prepping for Hurricane Matthew, he moved the basketball net, only to find a "huge" snake under it. We've seen them in quite a few places around our home, and we've come across them while on many hikes. What do we do when we come across them? We leave them alone. Snakes play an important role in the environment. Just laying our eyes on one shouldn't mean that it needs to be killed. Again, if it's not being a nuisance, there's no reason to panic and try to have it killed. Leave the snake alone, go back in the house, go the other direction, and chances are it's going to move itself fairly quickly, and you will probably never see it again. I don't think I've ever seen the same snake twice around my house. I was also told by an expert before that people often kill snakes because they think they are venomous (they are sure it's a venomous snake), but when the expert takes a look it usually is not. There are non-venomous ones that mimic the look of venomous ones. On a hike, I am always mindful of watching for snakes. I have spotted them on the trail many times, to the sides of the trail, and even wrapped around trees. We are always cautious if we are walking near a body of water, because that's a common place for them to be. When we spot one, we remain calm, take a picture, and move on past it, keeping our distance. It's never been a problem (knock on wood). Snakes in Florida are not aggressive, and usually want nothing to do with you. You can get more info on Florida snakes from the University of Florida, including how to get along with them, and identifying them. Teach kids not to pick the snakes up, especially if they are venomous. A good way to remember which are venomous when it comes to coral snakes is to remember "yellow touch black friend of Jack, red touch yellow kill a fellow." There are non-venomous snakes that mimic the venomous ones. If you are bitten by a snake be sure to seek medical care. From what I have read, there has been only one person die from a coral snake bite in the last 50 years in the country, and that was because he didn't seek medical care. Leave the snakes alone and they typically leave you alone.
If you are going to live in Volusia County or anywhere in Florida, I encourage you to learn more about the wildlife and how to get along with it. As a nature lover, I see Florida's wildlife as an amazingly beautiful thing. I think it's something to be protected, respected, and preserved. I may fear big dogs, but I don't want them killed just because I happen to see them. I try to keep my distance and move around it, just as people should do with alligators, snakes, and bears that are not being a nuisance. When it comes to Volusia County's and Florida's wildlife and environment, it's not us versus them. We are in together. It's us and them. But I think we can all agree that there is far more cause for concern when it comes to pesky no-see-ums and mosquitoes! :)
About the author: Jacqueline Bodnar is the founder and owner of Volusia County Moms. She has been a professional writer/blogger since 2004. Read her full bio here.
Also, please don't put gopher tortoises in the ocean.
My son observing an alligator while we were hiking at Orlando Wetlands Park:
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