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Meet WallyBob, the 10-foot alligator who visited the Forest Hills neighborhood for a snack

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Darryl Rogers
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WHQR
A sizeable Alligator known as WallyBob, next to the Forest Hills Elementary School.

Over the weekend, the neighborhood surrounding Forest Hills Elementary gathered to see a 10-foot alligator eating a large turtle in the creek next to the school. WHQR was there — and asked animal control and onlookers what it's like to see an animal of this size

Some who live in the neighborhood call him, “WallyBob.” Wally for Wallace Park, where he comes to eat from time to time — and Bob, well, who knows? It just seems to have a ring to it and it's caught on with neighbors.

Elizabeth Sheats was one of many neighbors who stopped by to watch the alligator.

“I saw it last year this time of the year and the year before that it was here during COVID when everything was shut down. We were like, at least there's something to do, we'll go see the gator,” said Sheats.

Because of his large size, two sheriff’s officers were on scene to ensure the safety of the community — and the alligator, they’re federally protected species.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Daniel Ayscue answered neighbors’ questions and said they’ve learned it's not worth it to relocate an alligator because eventually, they’ll make their way back to their original habitat.

“Not many people get to see that and see that this close. So we want to encourage that, let people know that, hey, like they are here, but be respectful of him because that's a massive, massive animal that may cause some serious damage but they're so cool to see because we don't see this that often, especially one this size,” said Ayscue.

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office did confirm that a North Carolina wildlife enforcement officer showed up on scene, assessed the situation, and decided the alligator posed no current threat to the community.

Coincidentally, the week prior to observing WallyBob, Ayscue had attended a training on responding to alligator calls with North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Chris Kent.

Kent said it’s good to have trained responders like Ayscue to cut down on response time to alligator calls. As a biologist for the commission, Kent has jurisdiction over 12 southeastern counties, so it’s difficult for him to come to every call in New Hanover County — but he said part of his job entails making many site visits to observe and collect data on the Cape Fear region’s animals, including alligators.

However, Kent said he makes it a priority to respond if the alligator is in an emergency situation like if one is on the highway or there’s an immediate threat to the alligator’s safety. Kent said he also makes many presentations to community groups, informing them how they can peacefully co-exist with alligators who show up in the neighborhood.

The Wildlife Commission, according to Kent, received about 93 calls and emails about alligators in New Hanover County in 2020. In 2021, those numbers stayed roughly the same.

More on WallyBob

After Saturday’s sighting of WallyBob, Kent said because of his size, he’s likely about 40 years old. He said he’s had knowledge of this particular alligator following the same route for years.

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Emily Lockhart
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WallyBob was sighted during the July 4th weekend, too.

Alligators have specific home ranges and this one likely travels from the Smith Creek watershed into its smaller tributaries. Kent said he’s probably hunting for turtles, as to why he ends up hanging out around Wallace Park. Dozens of neighbors watched WallyBob slowly eating a turtle — which sounds like a tough meal to swallow, but alligators have very acidic stomachs to break down things like bones and turtle shells.

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Greg Uhl
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WallyBob and his turtle meal

“They commit their routes to memory, and they return year after year,” said Kent.

Males, in particular, also travel longer distances to find potential mates. The mating season has just ended (which runs from May to June) and now alligators are into their nesting season, which typically starts in mid-July and goes until September.

Deputy Ayscue noticed WallyBob was missing one of his scutes — the bony plates that make up the armor of alligators and other crocodilians — a possible sign that he had been tagged by the Wildlife Commission before. Kent said he can’t be sure that he’s been tagged, but the missing scute could be a sign of a scuffle with another alligator, as it’s common for alligators to fight other males during mating season, and in the process lose scutes or have other major injuries.

In 2017, the Wildlife Resources Commission started a tagging and recapturing program with the state’s alligators so that they can measure their growth rates, note any injuries, and can follow their movements through GPS tracking. Kent said so far the state has tagged 800 of them.

As for WallyBob’s eating habits, Kent said alligators’ slow metabolism is such that they can go days without eating another meal. And one as large as WallyBob can even go as long as a year without eating.

Typically, though, from November through April, alligators do not eat anything at all. It’s called brumation. Their metabolism slows down even further, as does their breathing, and they basically stay put in one location to conserve energy until it warms back up.

A changing climate is also a threat to alligators — if there is a warm streak in these fall and winter months, this signals to the alligators that they can emerge from this brumation to eat. If there is a following cold snap and the alligator has something digesting in its stomach, it can die because it can’t metabolize its food. That’s when Kent can witness alligator mortality events.

Dangers to alligators like WallyBob

While WallyBob has plenty of fans in the Forest Hills area, Kent said even reporting on the sighting of an alligator like WallyBob can be a danger to the animal. In his experience, sometimes when people find out where a large alligator lives, it ends up dead.

Kent said it was not too long ago, in early July, that he responded to a 10-foot alligator who was shot in the head in Pamlico County. He’s also responded to animals shot in the Holly Shelter Game Preserve.

In another horrific anecdote, Kent once had to respond to an alligator tied to a tree who was set on fire.

“People can be so cruel," he said.

Because of these instances, Kent wants to remind the public that it’s illegal to harm or harass the federally protected species. And that they’ve been living in these environments long before any people built homes, neighborhoods, and playgrounds.

As for possibly relocating WallyBob, Kent said that’s a dangerous proposition, too. Alligators can travel anywhere from 30 to 50 miles to return to their previous location — and that means they'll attempt to cross dangerous roads and intersections and waterways and travel through neighborhoods they don’t typically encounter

“Relocation is not rescuing; there’s a high likelihood they won’t survive it,” said Kent.

It’s even more dangerous for relocating smaller alligators, if wildlife biologists or enforcement officers put them in a place overpopulated with alligators, there’s a good chance they can be killed and eaten by other larger ones in the environment. So the bottom line for Kent, if the alligator is not posing a threat to someone or itself, leave it in its environment.

He also said as New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender counties continue to grow in population and as new developments pop up, these alligators can get displaced. So it’s not unreasonable to assume they’ll make a new home in the neighborhood’s retention pond.

But with the right education, Kent is convinced that people can respect alligators' presence in their neighborhoods. Part of that respect is to never feed them. Like bears, it’s often a death sentence for these animals once they become accustomed to humans. That means they’ll approach because they equate people with the giving of food.

“Once they lose their fear, that’s when they’ll start to swim up,” said Kent.

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Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR