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Florida puts the bite on people who feed alligators

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IN THE EVERGLADES, Fla. — Crusty's days are numbered.

The well-known 8-foot alligator has become so accustomed to people feeding him that his demise is certain. Because state wildlife managers worry all his snacks will make him aggressive, they will have to remove him from a canal along Florida's Alligator Alley in the Everglades and euthanize him.

To keep from having to kill even more alligators, officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission launched a three-day undercover sting operation in Broward County on Friday aimed at catching gator feeders in the act.

It's a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to 60 days in jail.

Jeffrey Bush, 43, of Fort Lauderdale, learned the hard way. Officers say they caught him tossing a fish to Crusty on Friday morning.

"I wasn't really trying to feed the dumb animal," Bush said. "I was just throwing stuff at him to get him to move, and one of those things happened to be a fish."

Bush will now have to argue his case in court.

"People think that throwing one hot dog in the water, a fish, a piece of bread or an M&M means nothing, but the fact is that act modifies the animal's behavior and now you have a potentially dangerous, fatal situation," said officer Chuck Ehrismann. "They start to see humans as a food source."

Officials estimate there are up to 2 million alligators in Florida, many living in urban areas that have encroached on their natural habitat. Three people were fatally attacked by alligators in Florida during one week in May.

"People see an alligator as this slow beast that can't possibly take a large mammal. Even though it swims gracefully, it is an animal that in the wild on a daily basis takes down deer and hogs," Ehrismann said. "The alligator has the strongest downward biting force of any animal in the world."

"We're talking about close to 4,000 pounds of pressure per square inch," he added.

By 2 p.m. on Friday, only about four hours into the operation, two citations were issued.

Officer Jorge Pino said the alligators can't be relocated once they've been desensitized to humans because they are territorial and it could upset the balance of nature elsewhere.

"We want people to enjoy alligators from afar," Pino said. "Just don't jeopardize their existence."

In 2004, more than 7,000 alligators had to be killed after becoming too accustomed to people and too dangerous to leave in the wild, according to the commission. Figures for 2005 were not available.

"These people feeding the alligators, they're actually contributing to their deaths," Ehrismann said.

And Crusty, too, soon will become another casualty of carelessness.

"His days are numbered, no fault to him," Ehrismann said. "It's a shame."