BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Your pulse begins to race. You want to run away but find yourself frozen in terror. This is the fear you might experience upon encountering one of North America’s largest reptiles, the alligator.

The animal’s name is an accurate description of its power. Experts say the word “alligator” finds its roots in the early Spanish explorers who saw the giant creatures and named them, “el legarto” or “big lizard.” They can grow to more than 12 feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds.

Louisiana’s many farms, rivers, and lakes are home to over three million alligators, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Considering the significant number in our state, it would be wise to know what to do if you come across one.

LDWF addressed this in a Wednesday, May 3 live stream on its Facebook account.

When gators were few and far between

At the start of the discussion, LDWF Alligator Program Manager Jeb Linscombe pointed out that Louisiana hasn’t always had an abundance of alligators.

“In the 1950s and 1960s biologists with LDWF realized that alligator numbers were very, very, low,” Linscombe said. “In fact, they were driven so far down it was hard to detect alligators. Even though they were there, you didn’t see them very often.”

Why was the gator population so low?

“That was because of overharvest due to the black markets,” Linscombe explained. “At the time, there really were no regulations associated with alligators. They were harvested year-round and shipped overseas primarily to tanneries.”

Eventually, officials realized there was a problem and decided to get rid of the black market.

“Between 1962 and 1972,” Linscombe said, “the alligator harvest was completely illegal. In that time period, they began doing research on alligators and then reopened the harvest. And a very conservative harvest in 1972.”

After 1972, with the black market eliminated, alligators began to slowly grow in number.

Encounters with gators

Many Louisiana residents are likely to go about their daily lives without crossing paths with an alligator. This is because most of the reptiles don’t live in residential areas.

“Although we have alligators throughout Louisiana,” Linscombe said, “the vast majority of our population is located in the coastal zone, which is about a three-and-a-half million-acre wetland complex, and 95 percent of that population is in that coastal zone. Fortunately, the vast majority of that acreage is far, far away from urban environments.”

But he added, “That being said, there are some areas where you have urban environments encroaching upon those wetlands and because of that, we have an Alligator Nuisance Program where we have approximately 50 to 55, give or take, nuisance trappers statewide.”

LDWF says alligators are naturally shy around humans and typically retreat into the water when they sense someone approaching.

But if you happen to encounter one, you should slowly back away and immediately secure any nearby children, pets, and elderly people. Linscombe said it’s key to make sure they’re a safe distance from the animal. Then, contact LDWF.

You can do that by clicking here or calling 1-800-442-2511.

After contacting LDWF, an agent will direct the property owner to a Nuisance Trapper who can schedule a day and time to remove the animal.

Protect your pets

LDWF also says if you happen to see an alligator while you’re with a pet, make sure your pet is on a leash and under your control. The alligator might view it as a food source. So, if you’re in an area where alligators may be, keep your pet away from the water or in a fenced area.

Why attacks occur

Though wild gators don’t typically attack, LDWF says a female who is protecting her nest might charge if she feels her offspring are threatened. In that case, experts say she’s likely to ward off the threat and then quickly return to her nest.

Generally, alligators do not attack. But should an attack occur, a person is within their rights to do what they can to protect themselves.

“You have the right to defend yourself against an imminent threat or imminent danger,” Linscombe said. “If you shoot an alligator in the wild, you better be able to prove that alligator was attacking you.”

Linscombe said many times alligator attacks occur because of human error. This might happen when people feed alligators or unintentionally leave food out that they can eat.

To learn more about alligator safety, explore LDWF’s website.