Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) poses with alligator carcasses after a gator hunt put on by a Political Action Committee to raise money for Vitter’s re-election or a possible campaign for governor.
Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) poses with alligator carcasses after a gator hunt put on by a Political Action Committee to raise money for Vitter’s re-election or a possible campaign for governor.
Gators are found in wet locations from Texas to as far north as North Carolina.
USGS Gators are found in wet locations from Texas to as far north as North Carolina.

Suppose you buy a nice place in the country, fix it up a little, then find out that the property is infested by alligators that wander onto your lot from the land next door. Is the neighboring landowner doing you wrong? And should they have to make it right?

That's the question facing the Mississippi Supreme Court this month. And according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, the answer is "No." State fish and game authorities say those gators don't belong to any landowner. They're under the protection of the state—and if you have a problem, you need to call the department.

The question comes up in a lawsuit filed by landowners Tom and Cassandra Christmas, who purchased a 35-acre Mississippi land parcel in 2003. In 2007, the Christmases cleared the land, built, and moved there. That's when they say they found out that the property next door (a refinery waste disposal site belonging to ExxonMobil) was home to a vigorous community of alligators.

The couple sued ExxonMobil in 2008, but the rambling gator case was dismissed in 2011, according to a story in the Biloxi Sun-Herald ("Analysis: Alligator suit before Miss. high court," by Jack Elliott). But an appeals court found for the Christmases, kicking the gator case back to the local judge and jury. ExxonMobil has appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The wildlife agency has filed a brief with the court claiming jurisdiction over any and all gators, wherever found and wherever bound. Wrote the agency, "Because wild alligators are the property of the state, and not subject to private ownership, private landowners have no duty to prevent them from causing damage to the land of neighboring property owners." Letting private parties sue one another over wild animals, the agency says, would muddy the waters in the swamp: "Private nuisance suits are incompatible with the department's exclusive authority to determine whether a wild alligator constitutes a nuisance and to take the appropriate action when it makes such a finding. Allowing such suits to proceed would result in a transfer of the department's regulatory authority over 'nuisance' alligators to the courts, which lack the expertise to make these types of decisions."

Alligators range widely across Gulf and southern Atlantic coastal states, experts say (see map). And although biologists have named the American gator after Mississippi, which lies at the center of the critter's range, Mississippi's gator problem pales next to Florida's. "The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks says between 32,000 and 38,000 wild alligators live in Mississippi, with about 408,000 acres of habitat," the Sun-Herald reports. Florida, on the other hand, reportedly has about a million gators. And, as in Mississippi, troublesome gators in Florida are the state's business. The state contracts with licensed trappers to handle the "nuisance gators," and trappers catch as many as 8,000 a year, the Tampa Bay Tribune reported in 2012 ("Florida wants more gator trappers, but filling the jobs might be hard," by Craig Pittman).

If the call's an emergency—say, an 8-foot gator double-parked under your truck—trappers respond right away. If it's not an emergency, the trapper who gets the call has 45 days to deal with the situation—typically, by killing the animal. With so many gators running wild already, wildlife managers say there's not much point in trucking them around the landscape. But trappers also say there's not much profit in a dead gator. One trapper told the paper that he takes the carcasses to a processor who skins the animal and keeps the meat, while the trapper gets to keep the hide. But another trapper said he lives too far from the nearest processor to make the skin worth the drive. At this point, retired Navy captain Jim Righter said, he's not making money at the job. Righter, a former submarine captain who now sells real estate in Pensacola, told the Tribune: "It's something else to hunt."

Crocodiles? Now that's a whole different animal. There are only about 2,000 crocodiles in Florida, and the endangered crocs only prompt a couple hundred nuisance complaints a year, according to the Sun Sentinel (see "Crocodiles turning up in Broward, Palm Beach," by David Fleshler). Reports the paper: "While crocodile complaints have gone up, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considers them little threat to the public and will relocate them only under certain circumstances. 'We're perfectly happy for a crocodile to be wherever they want to be,' said Lindsey Hord, coordinator of the nuisance alligator and crocodile program for the wildlife commission." The animals can bite, however. "Last year, a crocodile snatched a 65-pound dog off a sea wall in Key Largo," the Sun Sentinel reports, "an attack that biologists said was highly unusual."

But crocodile or alligator, don't take the law — or the alligator -- into your own hands, as one South Florida man learned in December (see WMAZ-TV story: "Man ticketed for trying to trade gator for beer," by Associated Press). State Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Jorge Pino told reporters that a man trapped a four-foot alligator, took it to a convenience store, and tried to trade the live gator for a 12-pack of beer. The clerk called authorities, the man received a citation, and the gator was released unharmed.

There are rules here.