Aaron and Nicole Heape show the spot where their mother was attacked by an alligator on Monday. Irma Heape was fishing on the banks of the lagoon behind their vacation rental on Monday when an 8-foot alligator emerged from the water and bit her foot, leaving several puncture wounds and cracked bones.(Photo: )
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Less than a week after two alligators were removed and later killed, Shipyard Plantation on Hilton Head Island has launched an internal campaign to remind guests not to feed or bother the reptiles.
In a letter sent to property owners last week, Brian Pettersen, Shipyard's director of safety and security, urged residents to respect the animals and their habitat, noting "they were here first."
He also plans to install new state-issued signs near lagoons and golf courses with the message, "Fed alligators are dead alligators."
Those measures come about a month after an alligator bit a Georgia woman who had been fishing in a Shipyard lagoon, seriously injuring her foot. The gator, which experts believe had been fed repeatedly before the incident, was never caught.
Within the past week, two nuisance alligators were removed from Shipyard after they crept too close to humans -- a sign that they, too, had been fed.
Although guest safety is paramount, Pettersen said he also is concerned about the alligators' well-being.
"We are trying to save our wildlife here," he said.
'FED GATOR IS A DEAD GATOR'
State law defines nuisance alligators as those whose behavior threatens people, pets or property. Often, gators that meet the criteria have been fed by humans, said Dean Harrigel, a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
"Fed alligators quickly become habituated to humans, and they are the ones most likely to cause problems," he said. "If you feed an alligator, at some point in time, it's going to have to be taken in and killed."
Shipyard Plantation has hired Hilton Head-based Critter Management to monitor its alligators. Company owner Joe Maffo said the two alligators removed last week showed signs of being comfortable around humans. He said other gators in the community might also be removed.
"I hate it. I hate destroying these animals. I am not God," Maffo said Friday. "But I am not going to have an incident with a child either. We make an evaluation, and if a gator acts up, I take him."
'A FINANCIAL IMPACT NEEDED'
State law also says it is "unlawful to feed, entice or molest an alligator," but Maffo says people routinely ignore signs warning against feeding. He believes "just about every alligator on Hilton Head has been fed."
He met with Pettersen last week to discuss ways to reduce human interaction with the animals, and hopes to have similar discussions with officials in other gated communities.
Maffo believes fines are part of the solution.
"A financial impact is what it's going to take. The signage and telling people that you don't do this is not working. When you hit them in the pocketbook, that's when you will get a change," he said.
State law also allows law enforcement to fine anyone caught feeding or harassing alligators. But catching violators in the act isn't easy, Pettersen said.
"By the time we get there, they are gone, or they are there and they aren't feeding them anymore," he said. "We have to see them doing it to give a citation, which makes it a little difficult."
Pettersen couldn't recall an incident in which his staff issued an alligator-related citation, which can carry fines up to $150 and 30 days in jail.
Fines also are rare at Hilton Head and Sea Pines plantations, the two largest developments on the island, according to officials there.
REPEATING THE MESSAGE
Harrigel says warnings about not feeding gators should be repeated often on Hilton Head and other vacation destinations because new guests are constantly coming and going.
"General reminders are one thing. Fines are another," he said. "The fact is, if you are feeding that animal, you are more than likely leading to its demise."