ISLAMORADA -- The relocation of a nesting crocodile from Lower Matecumbe Key's Tollgate Shores neighborhood last week made news, at least in part because of the oddity factor.
The crocodile, tagged Blue No. 9 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, laid 27 eggs in the front edge of the Tollgate Shores yard owned by Elaine and Peter Vlaun, just a few feet from the roadway.
But the relocation of Blue No. 9 to undeveloped bayside waters 4 miles north was also illustrative of a quiet shift in FWC policy over the past year, since the taking of a Key Largo dog by a crocodile heightened fears about the growing Keys presence of the ancient reptile.
Agents are now more willing to relocate crocodiles than they used to be.
"Our policy has evolved a bit," FWC Crocodile Response Coordinator Lindsey Hord said last week.
Previously, the FWC avoided relocating crocodiles whenever possible. The policy was based on a couple of key features of crocodile behavior. First, in spite of the fears of many, the toothy reptiles are skittish by nature. The FWC still says there has never been a recorded crocodile attack on a human in Florida.
Second, crocs are territorial and tend to return to old stomping grounds. And with the population of the once endangered, now threatened, reptile on the rise, even if a crocodile doesn't return to the place it was taken from, its absence simply leaves a void for another crocodile to fill.
Beginning last summer, however, the FWC loosened up its guidelines for relocation.
"Now if a crocodile is 9 feet or over and in a high-use recreation area, and people are concerned about its presence, we will attempt to capture and translocate him," Hord said.
FWC will also remove crocodiles from private properties at the request of owners.
That's what happened on April 23. Sometime in the morning hours Blue No. 9 picked its nesting spot in the Vlauns' elevated, sandy yard and went into an egg-laying trance. The spectacle drew plenty of attention in the neighborhood, as well as from wildlife officers and Monroe County Sheriff's deputies.
"While many would have liked to see the eggs remain in the flower bed and the croc to be left alone, others felt differently," Tollgate Shores resident Keith Allen wrote in an email to the Free Press.
Hord said such divergent opinions are the norm. He encounters many people who want all crocodiles kept out of residential areas. He also encounters many who defend the crocodiles right to reside unmolested in the Keys, which are part of their historic breeding grounds.
Ultimately, said Hord, Blue No. 9 was removed from Tollgate Shores last week at the property owners' request. She's likely to stay in the general vicinity of Lower Matecumbe, where she has been living for the past six months or so. In fact, as long ago as 2007 Blue No. 9 was struck while crossing the Overseas Highway at mile marker 60, just 13 miles away from where she nested last week.
Blue's eggs, meanwhile, were removed from the nest and placed in a cooler. FWC Agent William Billings will look over them during their 80- to 90-day gestation period.
Hord said the spike in crocodile-related calls after last spring's Key Largo dog-taking incident, combined with continued improvements in both the crocodile nest count and its overall population, were catalysts for the FWC's new, more liberal, relocation policy.
"The dog incident was in the spring and the policy evolved in the summer in the response to the way things were unfolding with crocodiles," he said.
Still, Hord added, crocodiles are here to stay.
"These things are very adaptable and ready to live with us," he said.