Actually, you can base all this important defensive strategy on one thing: Weight. If the gator outweighs you, yeah, you are pretty much sunk. If it’s an even-steven sort of thing, where if the gator pulls one way then you can resist, you have a chance.
Recent fatal attacks by gators upon unsuspecting people have us wondering if gator attacks are more common. The straight answer is no. Gator attacks on humans have always been as rare as lightning strikes upon humans. We’ve seen more gator attacks in the past few years because gators and humans are now living in overlapping territories, and because humans don’t have enough sense to avoid gators. My natural curiosity makes me wonder if there isn’t something we can do in self-defense if we suddenly find ourselves caught in a gator’s jaws. The professional advice I’ve seen isn’t entirely wrong. That’s the best I say of the professional advice.
Everyone recommends that you fight if bitten, and no one who survived an attack did not fight. It’s instinctive and not always effective. Whether you live or not depends more upon how big the gator is than whether you fight effectively. In a fight with a big gator, you will lose unless the gator wasn’t really hungry. I’ve not found any accounts of matched fights between gators and people where the person actually defeated the gator. You win if the gator lets you go. Sometimes people don’t entirely get away and lose an arm or leg. Sometimes a gator attacks and then reconsiders. That is a gray zone of victory, but generally if you live through a gator attack you win.
Professional advice is to attack the gator’s eyes with your fingers; pry the gator’s jaws apart with your hands; and don’t let it get you in a death roll. If a gator is charging at you, the advice is to run. There are problems with all those tactics.
A gator’s eyelids are armor-plated. You might poke underneath the eyelids, but you might not even be in position to attack its eyes. You can’t pry open a gator’s jaws with your bare hands because a gator’s bite strength exceeds that of a pit bull. Gators are built to hang on, so if that tactic works, it works for other reasons. The only way to avoid a death roll is not to let the gator drag you into the water. If it does, it will pull you under while it uses its tail to drive the “death roll.” The death roll is a twisting roll by the gator as it wrenches off whatever part of you it bit. That’s how a gator eats, by twisting pieces off its prey if it can’t swallow it whole. To prevent a death roll from happening, grab something solid onshore and hang on. If a gator can’t pull you into the water where it has all the advantage, it might simply let go and retreat. Or it might pull part of you off and take that with it, which has actually happened. Wrestling a big gator in the water, Johnny Weissmuller style, only happens successfully in the movies. Consider how long you can hold your breath while at maximum exertion and that’s how long you have to do something, if a gator pulls you under.
Running from a gator charge is a wonderful idea, but in real life you aren’t going to see a gator charging at you over an open field. Gators hunt either in the water or at the water’s edge. They defend nesting territories and will definitely chase you away if you threaten their nests or young. That gator isn’t hunting you, it just wants you to leave. If you see a gator in open country away from water, it’s moving to new territory, not out prowling for humans. Stay away from it and it won’t bother you. On the other hand, if you blunder into a gator’s ambush zone at the water’s edge and become a target, you can’t move fast enough to escape. The first twenty feet of a gator’s charge is too fast to avoid, driven mostly by the gator’s tail. You won’t see the gator until that last split second.
Professionals used to explain away a gator attack as the gator’s mistake. The official logic was always that the gator mistook the human for a deer. I first read that, in a newspaper account back in the 70’s and I still don’t agree with it. I doubt the gators are hunting humans intentionally now, but I don’t think gators make that sort of decision about food. Gators aren’t smart, but they are really good at being gators. To a gator any animal, fish, reptile or bird is food so long as they can catch it and at least rip a piece off. If you are a hiker filling a water bottle at a clear spot on the river’s edge, the gator in the water doesn’t say to itself, Is that a deer? To the gator you are just another animal in the kill zone. If there’s logic in the gator’s decision it involves how big you are in comparison to it.
Most attacks upon humans don’t happen when people are out imitating deer. According to records collected by CrocBITE.com, most people bitten by gators are attacked either while fishing from shorelines or when swimming. Either situation is easy to understand as activity that arouses the hunting instinct of a gator. If you are playing a fish while standing in shallow water, the bait you cast was intended for the fish, but the thrashing fish becomes gator bait. You might get bitten when you grab for the fish the gator came after, or it might attack you because you got the fish first. Gators going after fish are often smaller gators, and attacks upon fishermen cease when the gators let go.
Human behaviour causes gator attacks on swimmers. I don’t just mean being dumb enough to swim in a gator’s pool; I mean thrashing and splashing and kicking your feet. Humans look like animals in trouble when they swim, and that’s a golden opportunity for a gator. The gator doesn’t mistake you for anything. You are an animal in trouble. If you are crossing a river in gator country, do it quietly. Keep hands and feet under water and don’t make any unnecessary disturbance. (I’d better explain that, if you want to move quietly you stay below the water. If you are stepping in and out of the water, or try to keep your hands out of the water, then you make noise. You take a step and your footstep sounds like bloop! splash! You lose your balance and put a hand down and it sounds like smack! splash! I used to go fishing with a dog that could never walk quietly and whined. Keep your hands and feet below the surface and you won’t make so much noise.)
So, what can you actually do if bitten? Besides a certain amount of poking and pounding and thrashing and such? If the gator is big enough to drag you, grab onto anything you can grab and yell for help. In one recent instance, a gator attacked a woman weeding a flowerbed near a canal. She grabbed a tree and screamed for help. Several people tried to disengage the gator but using all the standard methods they could not dislodge it, and the gator took part of her with it when it returned to the canal. That was still a win for the humans, because she survived. It also demonstrates that kicking and punching and poking does not always intimidate a big gator. Gators have evolved to withstand that sort of thing.
I haven’t actually found very much effective advice about how to fight a gator barehanded. People who work professionally with gators and crocs in wrestling shows always attack first, from behind, and grab the gator’s jaws to hold them closed. Pull the head back at a 90 degree angle and you’ve immobilized the gator. Now it can’t attack. People do this with small gators, not with big people-eating monsters. Knowing that trick of pressing the head backward could be of help with a small one, but it only is possible if the gator bites you in the right place. Seems like a good trick to know if you’re fishing and a gator latches onto your arm when you reach for a fish. It could force the gator to let you go.
The other good advice I found comes not from humans but from animals who have success fighting crocs and fending off croc attacks. Hippos live in crocodile-infested waters, but except for attacks on baby hippos, crocs stay away from hippos. Hippos use herd tactics and respond en masse to croc attacks. They are also heavily armed with long tusks and powerful jaws. A herd of hippos can do fatal damage to a croc in just seconds. By this example, a person fighting a gator has their best chance of surviving if someone else intervenes with a weapon heavy enough to do real damage to the gator. Go fishing with a buddy, in gator country, and take more with you than a fishing pole. Alone, even with weapons on your belt or slung across your back, you might have no chance to use them.
Jaguars hunt crocodiles. I watched a few videos and picked up a few bits of wisdom from the jaguars, who agree with the human gator wrasslers about attacking from behind and choosing smaller crocs. Jaguars don’t attack the eyes, because they are out to kill the croc. Jaguars start with a bite to the back of the neck, then shift their grip to the throat of the croc. I could not spot exactly how they did this because it happened during a lot of thrashing and wrestling underwater, but then the jaguar emerged holding a limp croc by the throat. The results were unusually sudden and I would doubt that the throat attack is deadly right away, but something else might also be at work.
Some reptiles, birds, and even sharks lose consciousness when in certain positions and while under stress. It’s a defensive response like a possum playing dead, but it’s not a choice. It just happens, and it happens even while fighting. So, when the jaguar has the croc by the throat and turns it belly up and holds it there, maybe the croc went into defensive paralysis, like a chicken will do in a similar situation. If you could wrestle a gator onto its back, would it pass out? Hmm. Would it go limp and let you go? or would the jaws just be frozen shut? in which case you might just be there until the gator wakes up again. There’s so much we don’t know! but it seems to work for jaguars, and going for the throat makes more sense than going for the eyes. The throat is a softer target. If I were in that situation and had that choice, I’d go for the throat.
All that is just theory and to my knowledge no one has yet tried it in a life or death situation. To think you can win a barehanded fight with a big gator is just stupid. It’s a very poor tactical spot to be in, to have this sudden struggle thrust upon you and only seconds to act before you drown. Japanese soldiers retreating from a battle on Ramree Island in 1945 plotted a course through a swamp that happened to be home to lots of crocodiles. I’m not sure what the crocs normally ate but I would doubt that it was anything resembling a Japanese infantryman. These men were armed and dangerous and accustomed to fighting. They had weapons ready. A thousand men went into the swamp and four hundred men came out. The lesson they learned was to stay out of the swamp.
Attacks by gators in the U.S. usually happen when people are doing things that wouldn’t be dangerous and stupid if they were not doing them in gator country. Even if you are just on vacation in Florida, you are actually in gator country. Don’t let your children or your pets play at the water’s edge in gator country. Don’t sit on a footbridge and dangle your feet in the water. Don’t go swimming in the gator pool. All these mistakes have resulted in human deaths in gator country. Put up a good fence around your yard if you live near water in gator country. It’s wrong to think that gators will avoid you because the experts say that gators fear humans. There’s plenty of evidence that if they once did fear us, when gator hunters nearly wiped them out, they’ve overcome that now. A fence will keep the big ones out of yard and swimming pool.
Fishermen: get a boat. I understand the challenge of pushing through swampland to a good fishing hole and the odds of being gator bit are probably about the same as being hit by lightning. People use those stats as justification for doing dangerous things. I was out in the woods here this summer, sitting out a lightning storm amid some tall trees, and the odds of being hit by lightning seemed a lot better right then. If gators lit up every twenty seconds with a blinding flash and a ripping bang, people might take gators more seriously.