Joe Maffo, left, lifts up a captured alligator’s head to prevent the reptile from moving, while grandson Joey Maffo ties the creature’s hind legs. The gator was trapped in Hampton Lakes May 11. COURTESY CRITTER MANAGEMENT

It’s the middle of mating season for Lowcountry alligators, and humans would be wise to learn more about their carnivorous neighbors and leave them alone, according to a man who has been working with the creatures since 1985.

From early April to mid-July, alligators are active and can often be seen walking between water sources, or “strolling,” the term used by Joe Maffo of Critter Management on Hilton Head Island.

Maffo is licensed nuisance alligator trapper and is often referred or recommended by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to remove alligators from places they don’t belong. He also gets calls from the security offices of local communities in Southern Beaufort County.

During mating season especially, many gators seem to get discombobulated in their haste to find a partner. “They don’t know they can turn around,” Maffo said. Hence, instead of moving from one lagoon to another, some wayward gators end up at the front door of a home in Sun City, or a swimming pool in Hilton Head Plantation, or stuck behind an HVAC unit in Bluffton.

The spring mating “stroll” is simply alligators “doing what alligators do,” Maffo said. And he doesn’t want humans nor their pets to get hurt by inadvertently getting the gators’ way.

“Just leave them alone. They don’t know any better. Their brains are the size of a pea,” Maffo said. “They are not our friends, but they’re not our enemies either. We can all live here together.”

Maffo’s daughter, Dana, and son, Kiki, work with him, as well as his grandchildren, Morgan and Joey, in all kinds of wild animal situations, from abandoned baby raccoons to rats in an attic to the giant gators, with a healthy dose of snake removals. (“Please don’t kill snakes,” Maffo pleaded. They help control the rat population.)

According to National Geographic, the American Alligator (alligator mississippiensis) can grow up to 15 feet long and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Their average lifetime in the wild is 35 to 50 years.

Various scientists say the species is thought to be 150 million to 250 million years old, “managing to avoid extinction 65 million years ago when their contemporaries, the dinosaurs, died off,” as National Geographic noted.

Maffo and his family are continually trying to educate the public so they can be aware of the dangers inherent with wildlife, especially the gators.  They host educational presentations for schools, camps, and other groups whenever they are asked.

“The first thing to know is, don’t feed them,” Maffo said. Alligators are smart enough to equate humans with food, he said, and that’s dangerous. On that note, grandson Joey said, “For how small their brains are, it’s weird how smart they are.”

While alligators’ natural instincts are to avoid people, they learn that people are feeding them, which normalizes the behavior for the reptile, which in turn is dangerous to humans.  “They get comfortable around people and lose their God-given fear,” Maffo said.

DNR has placed signed near lagoons warning humans of the danger – and the fact that feeding, harassing or killing the creatures is unlawful. The signs incorporate Maffo’s slogan, “A fed gator is a dead gator.” Whenever DNR calls him to remove a nuisance gator, that animal must be euthanized.

When a gator is spotted in a local waterway, humans are advised to watch it from a safe distance, but they shouldn’t try to catch it. “I hate to see tourists feeding them and then trying to catch them,” Maffo said.

He said he found 176 fishing lures inside one 13-foot alligator that had been harvested from Jarvis Creek Park on Hilton Head Island. “People had been feeding him. He had also eaten a soccer ball,” Maffo said.

Next, people should be hyper-aware of their surroundings, especially at night and especially during mating season. “Always take a flashlight when walking at night,” Maffo said, “and don’t ever walk close to the edge of lagoons, rivers and ditches, especially when walking a dog.”

A barking dog can attract an alligator, Maffo said. Small pets are prime prey for gators, and it’s vital to note that a pea-brained alligator doesn’t know the difference between a dog and a small child.

Maffo’s last bit of advice is this: “If something goes into the water, don’t go in after it.” This is because of his final point: “Always assume there’s a gator in a body of water – even a ditch.” And even the May River and Skull Creek, where gators have been seen and photographed often in the past several years.

Alligators sometimes wander into the ocean as well.

“They go into the ocean to heal, to travel, to clean themselves and to explore,” Joey said.

What should people do when they see an alligator strolling through the neighborhood? “Do not approach it. Leave it alone, and call the authorities,” Maffo said. “He’s most likely looking for a girlfriend.”

The best protocol is to call security if it’s a gated community, or call Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. They are knowledgeable in handling such situations and will call Maffo if needed.

“I love alligators,” Maffo said. “They just want to be survivors.”