Earlier this month when park officials abruptly removed a rare crocodile from the remote islands in the Dry Tortugas it had peacefully inhabited for 14 years, safety for both visitors and the croc was given as the reason.
But in the weeks since the move, experts keep asking: why the hurry?
The request from Everglades National Park Superintendent Pedro Ramos to move the croc came at 5:39 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service croc experts were unavailable to weigh in on the plan. Ramos included emails from the park’s chief biologist and Dry Tortugas manager relaying increased concerns about visitors feeding the croc, but gave only one example of a specific threat: the croc swimming toward a chum bag dangled off a boat by an angler in early May.
“I am extremely concerned about this situation and would like to take appropriate action immediately,” Ramos wrote.
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Faced with the dire warnings, FWS state supervisor Larry Williams was left with little choice but to agree two hours later. He then relayed the plans to his staff, warning them to be ready Monday with instructions for the move. At 7:25 a.m. that Monday, the region’s assistant director emailed Williams to ask what options were available for relocation. Williams replied that the agency’s croc specialist would have choices available later in the day.
What he didn’t know was that the croc, beloved by visitors and marveled at by experts for thriving so long in isolation from others of its species, was already gone. Despite a recently completed study that identified ways to reduce risk through signs and other measures, the croc had been flown more than a hundred miles away to wetlands in the Everglades.
“It wasn’t good science. It wasn’t good management. It was hasty,” South Florida wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski said. “There should have been some consultation with a croc biologist, and if they did, they should have consulted with more because every croc biologist I know would be opposed to just grabbing him and putting him in the Everglades.”
A week after the move, in emails obtained by the Miami Herald, FWS biologists complained that the move was mishandled and wondered why suddenly, after 14 years, the situation became an emergency so quickly. Park staff did too little to keep visitors from feeding or interacting with the croc, the emails said. Biologists were also concerned that no radio tag was attached to monitor the croc’s location in its new home where it could be at risk of attack from other crocs, which are highly territorial, or try the daunting swim back to the far-off islands.
“This is a measure that I would certainly [have] asked for if I had known about the request,” FWS biologist John Wrublik wrote in an email. Wrublik later declined to comment.
The croc, nicknamed Cleatus by park staff, mysteriously appeared at the park over a decade ago, a rarity among rarities. North American crocodiles can only be found in the continental U.S. in South Florida. Once hunted for their hides, only 300 remained in Florida when they were added to the endangered species list in the 1970s. Aggressive conservation efforts, including protected nesting habitats in the Keys and around Turkey Point, eventually led to a rebound that resulted in the species being reclassified as threatened, and still protected, in 2007. About 2,000 inhabit the state today.
Early on, park officials considered moving Cleatus, but quickly ruled it out, said retired park biologist Oron “Sonny” Bass. Other efforts to relocate crocs have frequently failed when the animals returned. In one case, a croc swam from Florida’s west coast back to a marina near Homestead.
North American crocs are also notoriously shy. The only recorded attack on humans in the U.S. occurred in Coral Gables in 2014 when a couple left a party for a late-night swim in a nearby canal designated as a croc habitat. A croc bit both swimmers, but quickly retreated. With their narrow snout, the crocs feed mostly on small fish, reptiles, birds and mammals and rarely attack larger prey.
But about eight months ago, Dry Tortugas manager Glenn Simpson said he grew concerned when sightings of the croc around the dock and swim beach increased.
The park began posting signs warning visitors not to feed the croc in July, a month after an alligator grabbed and killed a toddler from the edge of a lake at a Disney resort. In April, the same month a visitor uploaded a YouTube video showing the croc swimming slowly behind a snorkler, additional signs were posted at the ferry terminal in Key West and around Gardener Key telling visitors to keep their distance. The staff also sent Wrublik its initial assessment and asked for input on April 26, Simpson said, but never got a reply. FWS spokesman Ken Warren said Wrublik hadn’t had time to compose his response.
Then, a week and a half before the move, Simpson said he spotted the croc swim directly to the angler dangling a bag of chum.
“When it elevated to a high risk, which is what we were seeing, then we have an obligation to take action,” he said. “I think I understand the critics: well why did it happen over the weekend? We really couldn’t afford to take the chance.”
Despite rising concerns, no visitors were ever cited for feeding the croc, he said. Two verbal warnings were issued, with the decision made to instead “do a verbal intervention and educate people because our goal was to let people know so they could share the information,” Simpson said.
However, wildlife biologists say issuing violations for feeding wildlife is a reliable tool. Strict enforcement of bans on feeding bears in Yellowstone National Park are credited with dramatically decreasing attacks.
“People should absolutely not have been allowed to feed the croc,” Wasilewski said. “You can’t blame that on the croc.”
Normally, relocating an endangered animal would involve a careful documentation that wildlife regulators would then be allowed to review, Bass said.
“There’s various guidelines that are set up, protocols that end up being an action line, like with a bear,” he said. “Usually it’s a consultation. They would normally look at all the information and render an opinion unless there’s some extenuating circumstances.”
Bypassing such protocols sets a dangerous precedent for moving endangered species that humans may consider a nuisance, said University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti.
“I obviously wasn’t privy to everything, but what I do hope comes from this is an established procedure where everything can be fully vetted ... so we’re not caught by surprise and have to make a decision at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.”
Biologists also worry that Cleatus’ fate will remain unknown because no tracker was attached. Simpson said park officials considered a tracker, but ultimately ruled it out as too expensive, too unreliable and having too little scientific relevance because it provided data on just one animal.
“Putting a device on only one animal provides little scientific information,” he said.
Other biologists disagree.
“That information would help guide you with decisions you might have to make later,” Bass said.
Ultimately, Cleatus was deemed a nuisance croc, allowing his removal under a state law rather than the Endangered Species Act. To some, that amounts to a fast and easy choice in what can be a complicated balancing act between humans and endangered species. It’s also particularly infuriating to put the blame on the croc, biologists say.
“I prefer the term nuisance people,” Wasilewski said.
Ramos, who oversees the Everglades and Dry Tortugas parks, said safety was the final determining factor.
“When it comes to public safety [we] will always take appropriate action to ensure it, as opposed to looking back and regretting not having done so in light of a tragic incident,” he wrote in an email Thursday.
And if Cleatus comes back?
“We will consider reasonable alternatives at that time.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich