Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently went undercover to crackdown on people feeding alligators. Experts warn that interacting with alligators can create conditions that can be potentially dangerous for humans. But feeding the wildlife is not the only thing disrupting the balance of nature in Florida. Exotic animals that were once pets and have been released into the wild are thriving and creating major problems.
Officer Jorge Pino, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, was part of a recent three-day operation to catch people feeding the alligators.
"The main purpose of the sting was just to get a message out, and that message is simple: don't feed the wildlife. And there are many reasons for that. People think that they may be doing the right thing by feeding alligators or feeding ducks or feeding dolphins or any wildlife. But in reality what you're doing is altering their behavior," he said.
Feeding alligators is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and/or 60 days in jail.
Wildlife expert Ron Magill, who is the communications director at Miami's zoo, says alligators lose their instinctive fear of humans when they are fed by them.
"When you remove an alligator's natural fear, you're really removing your first defense. When that alligator comes to you and loses it's fear, that's a problem. To add to that problem, it's associating people with food," he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says such alligators are often associated with deadly attacks against humans. Alligators that no longer fear humans are trapped and killed by authorities due to the grave threat they pose.
Florida officials say alligators have killed 17 people in the state since 1948. The wildlife commission says the figure does not include three cases from earlier this year that are still under investigation.
In Florida, a boom in population and development has brought wildlife, literally, into the backyard of residents.
Wildlife expert Todd Harwick operates a business that traps those animals. He says there are more than one-million alligators throughout the state of Florida, hundreds in the Miami area alone.
"We catch them in downtown Miami, we catch them on the fringes of Miami, we catch them on the streets of Miami. The alligator is here to stay and he can turn up just about anywhere, and he has," he said.
Harwick also deals with exotic animals that were once pets and are now reproducing in the wild. He explains the problem.
"Besides the danger to the public, they pose a danger to the environment. These animals have no natural predator in south Florida or even in the United States, and they are very voracious feeders, they gobble up all the available food in the area that some of these other native or even endangered animals would eat. So the negative impact from these animals can be far-reaching," he said.
The problem animals include parrots, iguanas and Burmese pythons. The pythons, which can grow to some six meters long, have made a home in the Florida Everglades and have battled with resident alligators.
Magill says non-native animals are destroying fruit and vegetable crops and could even threaten the existence of native plants and animals.
"You don't know the extent of the damage sometimes until years down the road. The bottom line is if it doesn't belong here, it shouldn't be introduced here. There's a reason nature made things the way it does and having these exotic animals in our environment is causing stresses," he said.
But enforcement is difficult. Experts and officials hope greater education and awareness will get out the message that it is in everyone's best interest to enjoy wildlife from a distance and not to interfere with the natural balance of the environment.