‘Really upsetting’: 13-foot alligator ‘Big George’ is shot and removed from lagoon at Sea Pines

A 13-foot-long alligator known by neighbors as “Big George” has been removed from Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head, with residents agreeing his death was tragic but divided on whether it was necessary.

The gator, which was believed to be 40-50 years old, was shot and killed on Nov. 18 by Community Services Associates (CSA), which provides security and other services at Sea Pines, said Terri Weiss, who lives across the street from the lagoon where the alligator lived.

“It was really upsetting,” Weiss said.

Weiss told The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette she heard three gunshots on the afternoon of Nov. 18, just after returning home from walking her dog. CSA personnel, she said, cut across her property to reach the lagoon. Later, she saw CSA officials wrestling with the gator as they carried it up the bank before loading it onto a truck.

Weiss reported on Facebook that CSA had received complaints about Big George making a “beeline” in the water when people walked past on the street.

Al Stokes, a retired employee of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, advises people to be very cautious around alligators.

“They are nice from a distance,” Stokes said, “but they are very fast and they eat for a living.”

That was an indication, Weiss was told, that the alligator had been fed. The SCDNR advises people to never feed an alligator because it makes them associate humans with food.

“Please tell anyone and everyone visiting [Sea Pines] that a fed gator is definitely a dead gator,” Weiss said on Facebook. “Our impressive neighborhood gator is now dead because of the apparent actions of ignorant folks.”

A large alligator known as Big George sits on the patio outside a home in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island on Monday, April 20, 2020.
A large alligator known as Big George sits on the patio outside a home in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island on Monday, April 20, 2020.

Toby McSwain, CSA’s director of safety, security and transportation at Sea Pines, would not comment on the removal.

Big George, Weiss told the Island Packet, was well-known. “He would often sit on the bank in front of my house,” she said, “and bask in the sun.”

When George was out and about, Weiss said, “we were just careful.”

“You’re not going to stand in the water and wiggle your toes,” Weiss said.

Sometimes, Weiss said, she would see tourists fishing in the lagoon. “I would say, ‘You’ve got a really big gator here so you might want to be careful.”

Weiss’ first reported on the alligator’s death on the We Love Hilton Head Island Facebook page. It prompted 255 comments and 57 shares.

“We saw him twice in the last few weeks and were in awe of his size and beauty,“ Vicki Lavallee-Marcotte said on Facebook. “Respect the wildlife, admire from afar and let them live in peace.”

There was debate over whether it was necessary to remove the alligator.

“A gator showing aggressive behavior should be taken care of,” Maria Liddick said. “Gators need to stay in their space, and people should stay in theirs. Sorry, but I can’t defend gators when they threaten humans.”

Nancy Buono-Dalzell said the removal “makes me so sad and mad. “Just not right,” she said. “Leave the gators be.”

Never feed alligators, experts advise

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources was not aware of this specific removal, said Greg Lucas, a SCDNR spokesman.

Communities such as Sea Pines may request a permit and tags, issued at the beginning of the year, to manage alligators, Lucas said. Activity is reported at the end of the year. The permits and tags allow communities to address alligator issues proactively and contract with removal agents directly or remove alligators themselves per the terms of the permits.

As populations and tourism increases in coastal habitats, the SCDNR says, more alligators are being fed and therefore must be removed.

“This situation is confounded by the fact that alligators have a bad (albeit biologically inaccurate) reputation from people misinterpreting the actual risk of alligator encounters,” the SCDNR says.

Big George had attracted the attention of security officials in the past.

In December 2020, the alligator showed up on a patio at a home where he toppled the furniture, breaking items that were on the table and banging his tail into the glass door. It took four security guards to move the giant gator back to a nearby lagoon.

Beautiful, but can be aggressive

Stokes, the retired manger of the SCDNR’s Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton, responded to many incidents involving alligators over a long career. He said a 13-foot-long alligator is as big as he has seen in South Carolina.

“It’s a beautiful animal,” Stokes says of alligators, “but they can also be a killer.”

Large alligators, he added, can be especially aggressive.

He’s watched as alligators have followed children around a pond, he said, and seen video of an alligator that, in seconds, lunged out of the water and grabbed a deer and pulled it in.

Security officials “have to care about human life first,” because you can’t go back afterward and apologize, Stokes said.

Gators can live to be 60 or older

American alligators can live to be more than 60 years old and attain lengths greater than 13 feet, according to the SCDNR.

Alligator populations have recovered from over-harvesting pressures, the SCDNR says, but still face challenges from development expanding into their habitat. Their colonization of storm water lagoons along golf courses and in subdivisions, SCDNR says, has increased interactions with people.

“Since alligators cannot be relocated,” the SCDNR says, “all calls from property owners requesting removal result in the harvest of that animal.”

In August, an alligator killed an 88-year-old Sun City Hilton Head woman after she slipped and fell down a steep embankment into the water.