(Because I know you’re wondering: the alligator was taken on the lake at Disney, part of that weird little light show they do outside of the Magic Kingdom resorts at 9 PM.)

By now everyone has heard about the death of Steve Irwin, better known as the Crocodile Hunter. Even though he regularly jumped from large jaws with snapping teeth that were barrelling in his direction, it was a stingray in Austrailia that eventually caused his demise.

Irwin often said that his main goal was to bring attention to conservation. Other animal handlers, like Tampa’s own Jack Hanna (you should NEVER miss this guy on Letterman!), have often said the same thing: they don’t pick up deadly, poisonous, cantankerous animals for fun. They want people to see the animals and then care about them.

Here’s the thing about people and animals. I think we give them too much credit–both the people AND the animals, come to think of it.

My friend J. was a dolphin trainer at one of the Sea World parks. Even after years on the job, he was giving a dolphin a routine yearly vaccine early in the morning before the park opened and ran into serious trouble. Dolphins do not like needles. The dolpin in question–who knew J., and who was one of the older ones in the park–was startled and smacked him down with the hundreds of pounds’ worth of muscle her tail. The force of the movement sucked J. to the bottom of the pool and he barely got himself out. (No word on if he successfully vaccinated the dolphin, although he said she was sulky for awhile and didn’t want to see him.)

I asked him one time if people should be fearful (in a healthy way) of dolphins–if he, himself, was cautious around dolphins when he went surfing. J. looked me right in the eye and said, “Yes.”

We have a lot of beautiful and deadly creatures here in Florida. If Steve Irwin taught people one last thing about conservation, I hope it’s that closeness to animals should be tempered with respect. I’m not saying that he did anything to cause this awful tragedy. But if a guy like Irwin–who knew animals better than most everyone else on the planet–can be killed around wildlife, then touching stingrays at Daytona or feeding gators or trying to pet a wild dolphin are not sensible behaviors. Sometimes people have this Disney-movie idea that animals are gentle and would never hurt them. They might not mean to…but they can. It’s terrible to be reminded this way.

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