As the American crocodile population continues to rebound and residential development continues in the Florida Keys, interaction with the nearly 100 million-year-old species of reptile are going to be inevitable.
A recent increase in run-ins with crocodiles prompted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this week to issue a warning, asking residents of the Florida Keys not to bother the animals.
In the past two months, state wildlife officers have received six complaints about nuisance crocodiles -- one in Key Largo and five on Lower Matecumbe Key -- agency spokesman Bob Dube said, adding he did not recall receiving any complaints last year.
The crocodiles, which live in brackish and saltwater and have been known to wander into freshwater, have not harmed people or pets, but have been in neighborhoods, canals and around mangroves abutting people's homes. There are 1,400 to 2,000 saltwater crocodiles in the Florida Keys and South Florida, according to Steve Klett, refuge manager for Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo, home to about 100 to 150 of them. There were fewer than 200 when the reptile was listed as endangered on the federal Endangered Species List in the 1970s, Klett said.
"It's not rocket science," Klett said of the crocodiles' recovery. "They have rebounded in spite of us, not because of us. You give them a little bit of wetlands and they do well. It's a pretty adaptable critter. It's been around 60 to 100 million years."
In its warning, the state wildlife agency reminded residents that feeding and harassing crocodiles is dangerous and illegal. When fed, crocodiles may overcome their natural wariness and learn to associate people with food, fish and wildlife.
At marinas and boat ramps, fishermen should dispose of fish scraps and carcasses in garbage cans, not in the water. That would attract crocodiles and is tantamount to intentionally feeding them, agency spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro said.
The reptile may look menacing, but is not inherently dangerous to people, experts say. The prehistoric creatures generally are reclusive and shy away from human contact. There are no documented cases of American crocodiles attacking humans. They mainly live off fish and have more than an adequate supply of food in the Keys, Klett said.
American crocodiles, which are found from Florida to Venezuela, are cold-blooded animals that like to bask in isolated areas. They are solitary animals that do not move in packs, preferring to move through mangrove swamps and estuaries between dusk and dawn, foraging for crabs, snakes, fish, turtles and the occasional rabbit and raccoon.
Crocodiles differ from their relative, the American alligator, having a longer and thinner snout, lighter color and two long teeth on the lower jaw that are visible when its mouth is closed.
In March 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declassified the American crocodile from an endangered species to threatened. However, the reptile remains protected from illegal harassing, poaching or killing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The harassing or feeding of crocodiles should be reported immediately to the Wildlife Alert Hotline, 888-404-3922. Nuisance crocodiles can be reported to the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Hotline, 866-FWC-GATOR (866-392-4286).