Tonawanda News

February 28, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Caterpillars, alligators and little girls

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — My mother said she was the best parent, until she had a child of her own.

I have heard the same claim from pet owners as well. Animal trainers claim that they are great trainers, and then when I see them with a difficult student, I discover that they are great trainers only when the animals are great.

Troubleshooting, whether for pets or children, is an important step in preventing future problems. These problems can be behavioral or psychological. The biggest tip, which you may know, is reacting appropriately the first time you encounter a problem. Another important part of this troubleshooting equation is … you.

Your sudden or not-so sudden body language, thoughts and attitudes can easily affect your students.

This past week I was at the Florida State Fair. I was walking over a bridge and a girl was looking out enjoying the view. Her mom told her, “Keep walking and you better hurry up because of the alligators in the water. And do you know what alligators like to eat? Little girls.” I was so disgusted by this woman that I knew exactly then I needed to write a column dedicated to her lack of wilderness appreciation.

First, we were on a bridge. If there was an alligator, there would have been no way of it getting to us. Second, the girl was taking a break and looking at nature. She was not in harm’s way and not provoking an alligator by a river bed. Third, the mom bent the truth. 

An alligator’s diet changes slightly depending on its size and age. Smaller gators eat snails, fish and frogs and larger alligators eat larger food items. These can include turtles, large fish, birds and small mammals like muskrat and nutria (also known as a river rat or coypu). Now if you were thinking of adding Chihuahua to the diet, you are part of the problem.

Yes, alligators have been known to accidentally attack and kill humans and pets; however it is not their first choice and it does not happen that often. It makes the news coverage because it is a horrible catastrophe and because it is an abnormality.

A tragic repercussion of the mother’s warning would be to have that girl grow up thinking that all alligators are little-girl-eating machines and not understand the importance of the animal.

I believe this Bradley Miller quote, “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar,” is appropriate.

Teaching the girl on the bridge that alligators eat little girls is negative for both the alligator and the girl. Alligators have a large economic value for the Florida Everglades.

Visitors enjoy seeing these large, prehistoric reptiles in the wild. Alligators also act as an indicator species. They can alert scientists if the ecosystem is healthy and on the mend or if it needs extra effort and resources.

Stressful events in our adolescence can cause anxiety in adulthood. Biochemists at the Tufts University School of Medicine found that mice can carry the effects of stress into future generations. This study showed that the kids and the grandchildren of stressed mice were at higher risk to be anxious. The scientists believe it could be a result and combination of social and biochemical factors. Humans have the benefit of a more enriched environment that will allow us better coping skills. However, it is interesting to think that our internal chemistry could be a factor in how we interpret and react to new animals and situations.

If the future children or grandchildren of the girl are anxious or stressed about alligators, it could be because of that situation that I witnessed.

Next time that parent needs to get their child off a bridge, they should ask them to get off because they have places to be, not because animals are going to eat them.

And that is why I am a better parent than the bridge woman. Now I will go tend to my children, Princeton, King Julian and Buddy Bird.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for "Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan" on Facebook.