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A Viral Hurricane Harvey Tweet Is Giving Gators a Bad Reputation

"Education is always key: alligators are misunderstood."

by Claire Downs
Aug 29 2017, 1:00pm

Image: MarinoCarlos/Flickr

On Friday afternoon, just hours before tropical storm Harvey made landfall in the coastal city of Rockport, Texans began preparing for the hurricane's inevitable devastation. Warnings of flooding, downed electrical wires, destroyed property, and issues threatening public safety dominated social media. But it wasn't until a viral tweet, posted by the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office, reminded the internet that Texans should also be wary of displaced alligators.

The photos, credited to @txgatorsquad, gave way to sensational reports and thousands of responses, many of which assumed the gator displacement was happening in real-time. @Txgatorsquad (run by Gator Chris and Gator Christy) pounced on the opportunity to disseminate gator safety information by posting a video featuring "Halo the Edu-gator" to their Facebook page. Gators Chris and Christy are "licensed nuisance control hunters" who largely use the account to share gator memes, sell t-shirts, and post pics of terrifying encounters with local reptiles.

Read more: Here Is an Alligator Trying to Eat a Drone

I contacted the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to learn about the possibility of alligator attacks during Harvey. I was connected with Dr. Jonathan Warner, the head of the area's Alligator Program, which includes farming, hunting, nuisance, education research and outreach. Warner, who spent a decade researching crocodiles in Africa and says he has "the best job in the world," expects his phone will ring a lot post-Harvey.

"The bulk of calls we're expecting will be over the next week as the rivers rise and the storm surges. We're expecting an uptick in activity," Warner told me.

But, the herpetologist doesn't seem too worried. "Not every alligator that comes up in a flood is a nuisance alligator," he said. "It's just doing its thing when flooding occurs. When the water recedes they'll leave on their own accord. They're not gonna hang around there in most cases after the flooding."

When I mentioned Gator Chris, Warner acknowledged that Chris was one of his alligator nuisance permittees. "I have about 65 people who are specially trained and permitted by our department to capture problem alligators in the state of Texas," he explained. "They have to go through a special handling course and a written course." As for the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office viral post (22K likes, 17K retweets as of this writing), Warner expressed disappointment. "We have a strict policy against filming captures, sharing them, and putting them on social media. Alligators have a bad enough reputation and we don't need to promote captures with their jaws snapping, promoting the image that alligators are bad and dangerous."

Because gator captures require a nuisance permittee's concentration and speed, Warner emphasized the absurdity of recording them. "We want people to go in, do their job, have a good relationship with their communities and avoid the hype. It's not something we allow, like, on Facebook Live or something. God forbid if someone were to get bitten on camera, that would be a huge PR disaster for us. It reflects badly on us as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It's also about dignity and respect for the animal."

Unfortunately, the hype has already set in around the internet. Some people are claiming Gator Chris' photos are theirs, while hoaxes like this previously debunked shark have resurfaced. I spoke with Major Chad Norvell from the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Department for a comment on the tweet's popularity and if he felt that creating a gator frenzy by quoting Gator Chris was necessary.

"We frequently have alligators moving around and we have a good relationship with Gator Squad," Norvell said. "Education is always key: alligators are misunderstood."

Gator Chris agreed with the Sheriff's office. "[The tweet] put alligators in people's minds before the flood waters kicked in. It got the conversation going a little bit early and we've caught three or four since the hurricane started. That's our goal: to educate people around coexistence strategies."

Exaggerated reports of non-dangerous gator encounters over the weekend have validated Warner's fears that the media will continue to portray the usually docile American alligator as a "scary and dangerous thing." Still, phobias were stoked when very real reports of a gator sanctuary in Beaumont bursting at the seams threatened to "unleash" 350 reptiles if water levels continued to rise.

Since Friday's tweet, Gator Chris and Christy have since updated their Facebook page to acknowledge that the photos they posted were not from Hurricane Harvey, but from March of this year. "It has been brought to my attention that people are using my pictures and posting them on their own social media pages trying to stir up panic in their own neighborhoods," Christy writes. "If you see any of my pictures, please correct the person that these are old photos and they belong to Gator Squad."

As for the hurricane, Gator Chris said, "We'll get through it. We're Texans."

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