Crocodile numbers grow in South Florida

The Miami HeraldApril 9, 2012 

Fishing in a canal outside Homestead Bayfront Park not long ago, Ed Castleberry fought hard to catch the biggest jack he’d ever hooked. But something else also wanted his 15-pound trophy, something lurking beneath the murky surface.

As the retired Miami-Dade firefighter reached down to land the fish, a dark shadow passed under it, instantly followed by an explosion of water and the scream of his reel as line zinged out.

An American crocodile at least 12 feet long had grabbed the jack. Ten minutes later, the croc surfaced, crunching the fish between toothy jaws, then gulping it down. It was like a scene from Jurassic Park, Castleberry joked.

“I’m just glad it wasn’t my hand,’’ he said.

Castleberry’s uncomfortably close call a few months ago was just one of an increasing number of croc encounters across South Florida. Last month in Key Largo, a 10-footer in a canal killed a 65-pound dog named Roxie. And last summer, crocs cruised into the canals of upscale Gables-By-The-Sea along Biscayne Bay, prompting the worried community association to add a “crocodile watch’’ to the crime and traffic watches on its website.

The American crocodile, or Crocodylus acutus, a salt-water species once reduced to a few hundred reclusive reptiles hidden among the mangroves of the deep Everglades, remains a rare creature. But the population has multiplied nearly 10-fold since the 1970s, with numbers now estimated at around 1,500 — even after a killer freeze two years ago that scientists say killed at least 150 adults.

The result is that crocs are slowly pushing back into coastal areas they long ago abandoned — places that now happen to have people living there. Last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fielded 106 “nuisance’’ croc calls — with more than 80 percent of those from Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, which boast prime breeding grounds along Florida Bay and the highest concentration of crocs.

“There is no question that with the increase in the crocodile population, encounters are much more common,’’ said Lindsey Hord, a biologist in charge of FWC’s nuisance reptile program.

Compared to the state’s one million alligators, which generate some 15,000-plus nuisance calls from worried suburbanites every year, crocs pose a small problem — but a far more challenging one.

The recovery of crocs prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove their “endangered’’ status in 2007 but they remain a “threatened” and federally protected species that scientists say still needs to expand back into historic range to assure long-term survival. So unlike when an alligator invades suburbia, state trappers typically won’t move a crocodile until a third nuisance call.

“That’s not a hard-and-fast rule,’’ said Hord. “Realistically, public safety is our absolute first priority but we have to recognize the need of the species.’’

While each case is different, he said, the message is to learn to safely live with them.

That’s not the answer many homeowners expect — or want to hear. Last summer, homeowners were shocked when state trappers, responding to a call about a five-foot croc in a swimming pool in Gables-by-the-Sea, tossed the reptile back into a canal. It was only a few weeks after a dead dog with bite marks had been found floating in a canal.

It’s been frustrating for residents who fear for pets and kids and no longer swim or clean boat bottoms in their canals, said Marisa Feito, president of the Pinecrest and Gables-by-the-Sea Homeowners Association. She’s hoping technology in the form of some sort of anti-croc electronics or barriers may some day persuade them to move on.

“It’s a very difficult situation because it’s almost impossible to resolve right now,’’ she said. “They’re protected so you can’t just shoot them or hunt them.’’

There’s the additional problem that crocs, once they stake out a territory, tend to return to it again and again, no matter how many times they’re moved, making a beeline back within weeks or even days, from 30 to 50 miles away. Trappers have experimented with attaching magnets to their heads while moving them to disrupt their primitive but powerful homing systems but the results have been mixed.

In the last few years, crocodiles — most easily most easily distinguished from alligators by their narrower, snaggle-toothed snouts — have popped up in parks, yards and fairways from Biscayne Bay to Naples and nuisance calls have come as far down the Keys chain as Big Pine. Crocs have been pulled from swimming pools in the Keys and Palmetto Bay, been plucked from the waves in Jupiter and Cocoa Beach and photographed sunning in a yard on Tampa Bay — about as far north as the cold-sensitive reptiles have been recorded.

Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife ecology professor at the University of Florida, said the crocs are simply reoccupying territory they retreated from as their population dwindled under pressure from hide hunters and coastal development.

“This really pretty much mirrors their historic range,’’ he said.

A brutal freeze in 2010 actually knocked numbers back from a peak of perhaps 2,000 adults, said Mazzotti, who leads annual nesting surveys that biologists use to make population estimates.

South Florida is home to almost all of the nesting, with prime grounds stretching from Cape Sable on the southwest corner of Everglades National Park to the cooling canals of the Turkey Point Nuclear Power to the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Mazzotti and Mark Parry, a wildlife biologist with Everglades National Park, credit much of the population boom to a small restoration project done on Cape Sable in the 1980s that stemmed the flow of sea water into a vast and isolated estuary.

“We’ve had orders of magnitude increase in numbers of crocodiles nesting in that area in response,’’ said Mazzotti. “This shows that ecosystem restoration can work.’’

With crocs highly territorial creatures that feast on their own young, it’s unclear just how large a population South Florida can support. But scientists believe people will be seeing more of them in the future — at least if they’re paying close attention to an animal that has a reputation for steering clear of humans.

“They’re around a lot more than most people realize,’’ said Parry.

Experts who work with them consider the American crocodile far less aggressive than man-eaters like the fearsome Nile crocodile. There has never been a documented attack on a human in the wild in Florida but the species has bitten and killed people in the Caribbean.

“It sounds funny using the word, but they’re probably the most gentle of the crocodilian species,’’ said Mazzotti.

Still, the American crocodile is a formidable beast, with males growing larger than alligators — up to 14 feet or more. As their numbers grow, so does the risk, said Parry. “Sooner or later there will probably be, just like with the Florida panther, a first attack on a human.’’

The threat to pets is more immediate and real. Roxie, the Key Largo dog, wasn’t the first or last croc victim. The FWC’s Hord said reports the croc had leapt four feet from the water to snatch off a sea wall were based on speculation.

“Nobody actually witnessed what happened,’’ he said. “They heard a splash and made some assumptions.’’

But he still stressed that unsecured pets “are not safe near the water in Florida.’’ Both crocs and gators see them as prey, he said.

“They’ve been eating small animals for thousands of years.’’

Castleberry, the angler who lost his jack to a croc, shared his experience and photos in story published this month in Florida Sports man magazine.

He thought it would serve as a reminder that South Florida was full of dangerous critters. He’s seen rattlesnakes along the canal as well and a friend once caught a spitting cobra, he said.

“You’ve got to be careful out there,’’ he said.

To read more, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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