Picture yourself in a canoe at night surrounded by pairs of glowing red eyes in the full moonlight. Now imagine your expert guide is an energetic, petite 27-year-old blonde woman who seems more likely to be a soccer player than a gator-wrangler. But Brittany Rigelwood, The Ford Plantation naturalist, is accustomed to misconceptions both about her and the alligators she works so diligently to protect.
Brittany recently received a call from a group of construction workers complaining about an alligator. “I came in with all my gear to capture a 10-footer and it turns out he was only about 3 1⁄2 feet,” she laughs. While a 3 1⁄2 foot gator is nothing to trifle with, someone as skilled managing gators as Brittany could have grabbed the gator with her hands. But not wanting to make the guys feel bad, so she tried to make a production of it.
Alligators less than six feet are no cause for alarm in Brittany’s world—they are just part of the routine. The larger gators, though, are less common. In fact, the largest gator tagging on property occurred in 2017 when she was working alongside the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), with whom she often partners. Together they carefully and harmlessly subdued an 11 1⁄2-foot gator that was 4 1⁄2-feet wide. When Brittany jumped on the gator’s back during the tagging process and discovered her legs couldn’t touch on either side of him, “I realized I needed some help,” she admits.
Growing up with Florida’s Okefenokee Swamp as her playground, Brittany says “the swamp is in her veins,” yet she’s worlds apart from the alligator-chasing characters on popular cable television shows like “Swamp People” or “Gator Boys” who make a living off stirring up fear of alligators. Brittany’s focus is on education and research.
“I try to emphasize how to be respectful of gators without being fearful,” she says. “Gators are an apex predator, so we do need to have some level of fear—you can’t just go up and smack its tail. But at the same time, you shouldn’t think a gator is going to jump out of the water and attack you.”
Brittany’s experience and confidence as a highly-skilled naturalist is obvious and reassuring. She’s conducted sea turtle research in Trinidad and Belize and has worked extensively with otters, eagles and other endangered species at various wildlife centers. After earning her Master’s degree at Clemson University, Brittany spent three months on an uninhabited island in South Carolina—that’s where she was introduced to the DNR and their gator research. “They needed somebody small to jump on the gator’s back and I was up to the challenge,” she laughs. “And that’s how I came to do this.”
So what exactly does a naturalist do at The Ford Plantation? It’s a question she gets asked frequently. Operating out of the Oyster House and Naturalist Center—a small cabin that Henry Ford built as his “man cave” as we’d call it today—Brittany organizes on- and off-site guided tours by foot, paddleboard, kayak and bicycle; runs the kids camp; maintains the beehives; manages the adopt-a-sea turtle program; and performs countless other duties vitally important to maintaining the delicate ecosystem on the property.
But it’s Brittany’s work with the alligators, which includes educating those who live and work at The Ford Plantation, that is particularly important to the ecological health of the region. “I’m really trying to get people to understand the ecological importance of gators, how to avoid them while living in the same habitat and why we need them,” she explains. “Some people would rather we just get rid of all of the bigger gators on the property, but they don’t realize the huge negative impact that would have. An ecological collapse would occur here.”
An entire eco-collapse seems a bit foreboding, but Brittany—the consummate educator—explains the premise. The larger gators control the population of the smaller gators. Removing the gators at the top of the food chain creates a glut of smaller gators. And it’s the smaller ones—the most active six to seven-footers—that typically cause problems. However, if you remove everything larger than six feet, you risk decimating the entire population. “Because if all you have is a bunch of small, weak gators, the population doesn’t thrive,” she says. “The big, strong, smart gators are the ones you want to breed. Natural selection is a good thing, especially with predators.” And if you get rid of all the gators? “Well, you must really like raccoons,” she deadpans.
To demonstrate the importance of gators and her research, Brittany encourages Ford residents and guests to join her as she works. This includes tagging and counting alligators, which she does about three times a week in the summer after dark when it’s cool so the gators don’t get stressed. At the end of each season, Brittany shares the data with the DNR.
Pulling gators out of the water, tagging, taking genetic samples and determining their sex is important for research, but it also has another benefit. Being hauled out of the water, examined and tagged creates a healthy fear of humans in the gator. “The only predators they have are other gators and humans,” she says. “That’s why they’re so afraid of us— we’re the top of their food chain.”
The problem occurs when gators become too comfortable around humans through interactions like feeding because it makes the alligator associate people with food. Aside from being ill-advised, feeding gators is also illegal.
Living with Alligators
A significant aspect of Brittany’s role is to help preserve the wildlife, the habitat, and the sensitive ecosystem on the 1,800–acre property. Sharing a habitat with alligators is a fact of southern coastal living. But like all things, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach the risks in our lives. Wearing a seatbelt, for example, is a smart, simple preventive measure we do without thinking everytime we jump in a car. Learning the dos and don’ts about living with gators is also a wise preventive measure. Thankfully, Brittany has compiled an educational hand-out called “Living with Alligators” that should be considered essential reading for every member and guest exploring the natural beauty of The Ford Plantation.
Dos and Don’ts
- Don’t disturb a nest
- Don’t feed alligators
- Don’t swim in the lakes or river
- Don’t corner one or attempt to chase it away
- Don’t allow pets or children near the water’s edge
- Don’t attempt to retrieve or play a golf ball near an alligator
- Do take a drop if your ball ends up in a precarious position
in or around a gator habitat. See Golf Rules and Decisions 1-4/10:
Dangerous Situation: Player may take a free drop from the nearest point of relief (a safe distance away), as long as the drop positions the ball no closer to the hole. If the ball is in a hazard, the same ruling applies but the ball must remain in the hazard or be dropped in a similar nearby hazard, if possible no closer to the hole.
See also Rule 28 – Ball Unplayable.