The Keys briefly turned into its own version of Amity Island from the 1975 film Jaws in March 2012 after a large saltwater crocodile lurched out of the dark waters of a Key Largo canal and snapped up a 65-pound mixed-breed dog named Roxie.
The Village of Islamorada even held a townhall meeting days after the family pet was killed -- similar to the one depicted in the film about a shark terrorizing a resort town -- packed with concerned citizens wanting to know what state wildlife officials were going to do about the growing croc population in the Keys. With few real beaches in the island chain, swimming in canals is a favorite past time.
But, parents and pet owners now thought twice about letting their kids and dogs swim with the toothy reptiles that can grow as long as 13 feet long.
Officials’ response? Nothing. Crocodiles are federally and state protected, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s position was that they were “reestablishing themselves in their historic range.” The American saltwater crocodile population, which is found almost exclusively in South Florida and the Keys, went from the hundreds in the 1970s to around 2,000 now, and that was the trend state and federal wildlife officials wanted to see.
Fast forward six years and a few more dead pets and the FWC’s position has evolved.
“The FWC has taken a bit of a different stance on the crocodiles, especially in light of the public’s reaction to a couple of recent tragedies,” FWC Capt. David Dipre said at a Sept. 6 meeting of the Islamorada Village Council.
While FWC officers are not going to kill crocs in residential neighborhoods and canals, the agency and its contracted trappers are going to make the reptiles’ lives uncomfortable by making loud noises and other ways to bother them, hoping they’ll be too scared to stay where they are.
“So, on day-one, the trappers are in there making loud noises, being a nuisance,” Dipre said.. “Day-two, same thing. Day-three, same thing.”
The FWC will then move the animal to another location, and hopefully, it won’t return. Simply removing them from an area usually doesn’t work. Crocodiles are known for their ability to travel miles and find their way back to their favorite spots, Dipre said..
Rounding up crocodiles in the Keys and dropping them off in the Everglades is also not an option, Dipre said.
“We cannot move the crocodiles and stack them on top of each other in the Everglades,” he said. “They’ll kill each other. So, we want to try to do this for the betterment of the crocodiles as well.”
Dipre said that some residents like having crocodiles in their canals, but letting them stay there no longer makes sense, even though there have been no known croc attacks on humans in the Keys. Unlike alligators, which are known to attack people on occasion, American saltwater crocodiles are much more timid and generally shy away from people.
“Alligators are different. They’re very aggressive. But not crocodiles so much,” Dipre said. “Nevertheless, why take a chance. If you have a crocodile in a very populated area, it needs to go.”
Islamorada Councilman Mike Forster said that ever since a dog was killed by a crocodile in the Plantation Key Colony subdivision, residents have become more uneasy about the influx in the reptiles in the area. But he urged people to call FWC and not take matters into their own hands.
“Don’t take care of this yourself,” Forster said.
Dipre stressed the councilman’s point, warning people that killing crocodiles is both a federal and state crime.
“We have had people do that, and we have done investigations, and it’s a criminal violation, both federally and state, and we will prosecute,” he said. “The law’s the law, and I realize people say ‘my children, my pets,’ but please give us a chance to do what we’re supposed to do.”
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service changed the American saltwater crocodiles’ status from endangered to threatened in 2007, but they are still a protected species by law.
Mayor Chris Sante said one thing people can do is not drop fish carcasses in the canals when they’re cleaning their day’s catch. He told a story about one of his neighbors who became a backcountry guide and was cleaning fish in the canal. First, tarpon came in to feed. Then a croc moved in.
But when the man changed professions, the crocodile no longer wanted to stick around, Sante said.
“As soon as he stopped guiding, the croc moved out,” he said.
To report a crocodile, call the FWC’s Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-FWC GATOR, or 866-392-4286.
Follow David Goodhue on Twitter @DavidGoodhue