WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It was curtains for Crusty. The 8-foot alligator had been fed too many marshmallows, jelly beans and M&Ms, and had lost his fear of humans. Under state policy, he was deemed a nuisance, which is a virtual death sentence.
But then an anonymous donor last month paid to have the gator moved to a nearby animal exhibit.
Crusty was one of the lucky ones.
More than 7,000 gators, or about 20 a day, are killed each year under Florida's nuisance alligator criteria — 4 feet or longer and a perceived threat to people or pets.
Under the policy, if the state receives a complaint about an alligator gator from a homeowner, it can send a trapper to catch and kill the reptile and sell its meat and hide. A gator can be killed just for being seen in a pond near children.
Biologists say the policy is needed to protect human life in densely populated Florida, where there is about one alligator for every nine of the state's nearly 18 million people.
Animal rights advocates agree that public safety should come first, but some wonder if the policy is too sweeping.
"There's, rightfully so, an interest on the state's part in protecting public safety, but unfortunately a lot of the response is just pulling those gators out," said Julie Wraithmell of Audubon of Florida.
Alligator attacks on humans in Florida are extremely rare. Just 17 fatal attacks have been reported since 1948 — not counting three deaths in mid-May that are still under investigation. Some experts say the cluster was just a freak occurrence.
Nuisance gators cannot simply be picked up and moved elsewhere. Biologists say alligators are highly territorial and can find their way back to their homes even after being moved miles away. Moreover, many privately run alligator exhibits are full.
Decades of over-hunting and loss of habitat led to the listing of the alligator as an endangered species in 1967. Forty years later, gators are thriving in Florida, after sweeping conservation efforts and a crackdown on poachers.
In addition to killing nuisance gators, Florida holds a yearly alligator hunt. This year's started Tuesday and will last nearly 11 weeks. Officials sold 4,406 permits for the 2006 season; each permit allows for two alligator kills.
Also, about 46,000 alligator eggs were taken from the wild last month as part of a program that allows farmers to raise them in captivity and sell their hides and meat.
"It seems we've struck a pretty good balance," said Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Remember, at one time the alligator was almost extinct."
Alligator trapper Todd Hardwick and others believe the answer to Florida's nuisance-gator problem lies in public education.
"Alligator common sense is lacking in Florida," he said. "You're surrounded by more than a million gators here. Behave properly and you'll be fine."
Among other things, the commission warns people to keep their distance from alligators, since they can run up to 30 mph on land; closely supervise children when they are around fresh water; swim only during daylight hours, since gators are most active between dusk and dawn; and never feed the animals.
Complaints about nuisance gators have risen steadily over the years, in large part because of Florida's increasing human population and the spread of housing developments into wild areas.
The deadly attacks in May set off a frenzy, with complaints in one week doubling from a year earlier to 1,218 calls. Last year, the commission received about 17,000 complaint calls and about 8,000 alligators were killed. In 2000, about 6,200 alligators were killed under the policy.
"I'm horrified to see the lack of consideration that humans give alligators, considering that the reason we have this problem is because of us," said Mary Martin, a Jupiter resident who runs an animal rights Web site. "It's morally and ethically outrageous to be killing them."
Harry Dutton, the state's alligator management coordinator, said no other state has such an abundance of large predatory animals living so close to so many humans.
"We're always going to err on the side of public safety," Dutton said. "But we'll never take so many alligators that we're going to jeopardize their existence."