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Beware: Alligators are crossing to find love, food and a better pond

After 3 large alligator sightings in one week in Venice, law enforcement agencies are calling for caution.

VENICE, Fla. — There are more alligator sightings and encounters happening throughout the Tampa Bay area as we approach mating season next month.

Law enforcement agencies have recently shared videos on social media responding to calls for assistance with alligators.

On Easter Sunday, a 10-foot-long gator was spotted strolling across yards as it headed towards Harrington Lake in the Plantation Golf & Country Club.

Then on Monday, trappers removed a similarly sized, but injured alligator from a pond at Pelican Pointe Golf and Country Club in Venice. 

On Tuesday, Venice Police responded to Bird Bay Circle near Hawk Run Golf course over a large alligator crossing the street. That same alligator, nicknamed Smiley by the golf course staff, returned for his evening stroll to the amazement of neighbors and drivers.

"Got in my truck, I go by there's our Smiley he's our resident alligator for the golf course," said Penny Thacker, a staff member at Hawks Run Golf Course. 

The 10-foot alligator lives in two small ponds behind the course in Venice and has recently appeared in the evenings to find a girlfriend.

"He decides to come back across the road, gets into the ditch and into the culvert and he is now gone, he escaped the trappers," Thacker said.

Smiley got to live another day and returned to his pond but resumed his search for his "Lady Gator of the Season." Thacker said Smiley has lived there for about a year, isn't aggressive or considered a nuisance, and goes about his business without being a bother.

In some places though, alligator encounters have been deadly. In late March, Hillsborough deputies said one person died after they lost control and flipped their car into a ditch when they hit a massive alligator. It happened in Lithia on Balm-Picnic Road near County Road 39 which is not far from Alafia River State Park.

Deputies said the 11-foot gator was in the roadway and was also killed by the crash. Again in March, a small dog was attacked near a lake on the State College of Florida Venice campus.

With more than 1.2 million alligators in the state, more encounters are expected as we head into mating season. Some alligators would also be on the move in a bid to find ponds with more water as a drought persists.

That's why law enforcement agencies are urging both walkers and drivers to be cautious and stay alert.

"They're widespread because wherever there's a pond, you're going to find an alligator and there's lots of water around this area so whether it's in a community or out in the open field, there's likely to be an alligator in or near the water," said Captain Andy Leisenring of the Venice Police Department.

Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission advise that whenever you're near a body of water and you see an alligator to give it space and don't feed it.

"During this time of year, we encourage people to take simple precautionary measures to reduce the chances of conflicts with alligators. The first tip is to keep your distance if you see an alligator and never feed one.," said Adam Brow, PIO for Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. 

"When fed, alligators can overcome their natural wariness and learn to associate people with food. Second, swim only in designated swimming areas during daylight hours. Alligators are most active between dusk and dawn," he added.

Brown also warns to always keep your pets on the leash, don't let children play around the water's bank and always pay attention when walking in areas near a pond or swampland.

"Even though you don't see that alligator, there's a very good chance an alligator may be nearby and can see you," Brown said.

He also warned against a rising trend of people putting themselves in danger to get photos or videos for social media.

"Don't be foolish, OK. This is not something that we want to play around with. There are plenty of people who are trying to make a name for themselves online, maybe to get a certain amount of likes or whatever it is, clicks on their website, but that will get you in trouble," he said.

Brown acknowledged that there is an excitement about encountering rarely seen wildlife, especially among kids, young people, tourists, and new residents to the area. He advises them to educate themselves about how to co-exist with wildlife in their habitat.

"Take the time to learn about what to do and not to do when you see an alligator because you will see an alligator, it's going to happen," he said.

Authorities also said the best practice when out and about is to keep at least 10 feet away from any open body of water.

If you do encounter any wildlife and it's an emergency situation you should call 911, otherwise call 1-866-F-W-C-GATOR for assistance with a nuisance alligator on your property or in your neighborhood.

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