"The majority of the alligators in Shelby County are found, believe it or not, toward downtown," says Andy Tweed, game warden for Tennessee Wildlife Resources. "There are some pretty remote areas in the downtown area, like the Wolf River from Danny Thomas out to the Mississippi River. That little corridor down through there is full of woods and weeds and little sloughs and cypress breaks. It's not very hospitable to people, and it's kind of hard to access. These are the kinds of places where alligators go."
Alligators in Shelby County? Yes, it's true. The home of blues and barbecue is also home to a large variety of other wild critters, including bobcats, coyotes, beavers, and many kinds of snakes, fish, and birds. Some are easy to find; others not so much. But the presence of alligators here is a surprise to most Memphians.
Historical maps show that the range for alligators, technically known as Alligator mississippiensis, included Shelby County and even farther north, which suggests the reptile lived here decades ago.
Alligators have been seen in recent years in the Mississippi, Wolf, and Loosahatchie rivers but are more common in the latter two, according to Tweed. They have also been spotted in McKellar Lake. During this year's May flood, there were a few reported sightings of alligators along the Loosahatchie.
Some wildlife experts say that the alligators here are transient. Lynda Miller, professor in the department of biology at Christian Brothers University and a herpetologist, is among them. Miller says the alligator presence in Memphis fluctuates, and that neither Memphis nor the remainder of Tennessee has a sustained population.
Miller says alligators are occasionally found in Shelby County after a succession of mild winters, but they die once a harsh winter hits.
"You could look at the weather history to get a good idea of temperatures over the past decade or two, but roughly every five years, we have a harsh winter with temperatures low enough for a long enough period of time to kill the alligators that have strayed this far north," Miller says. "It really is the exception rather than the rule to have these animals in the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers. It is easier for them to come up the Mississippi River, but again, as temperatures drop, they will either go back downstream or they will perish."
Robert Walker, owner of Critter Getters, a nonprofit organization that supplies and rescues reptiles and other wildlife, agrees.
"They have to survive the harsh winters that the city has, which conflicts with their standard habitat," Walker says. "Alligators need a warming atmosphere to breed and produce. They have to have sunshine."
That thinking is disputed by Chris Baker, assistant curator of the Memphis Zoo and manager of its reptile house, aquarium, and "Animals of the Night" exhibit.
"It astounds me that people think winter is the limiting factor on alligators," Baker says. "Alligators are known to use underground burrow-type situations, so I don't think you could say a harsh winter's going to kill them. They have harsh winters in areas south of here that have totally stable populations [of alligators]. For whatever reason, it's a failure to pay attention to natural history and animals in general that people only picture the Florida Everglades when someone says 'alligator.' They have a really big range and certainly live in places that get as cold as Memphis does."
Tweed thinks the alligator population here will increase significantly. "It'll take another 20 years before they're really prevalent in the West Tennessee area," Tweed says. "We have alligators just below the state line in Mississippi, and they've got them in Arkansas. They're not going to be an uncommon sight here in the near future."
Baker agrees, saying it wouldn't surprise him if their population increased and that there's no telling how many are currently here.
"As long as we don't kill or relocate alligators to another area, they could form a permanent population," Baker says. "All you really need is two gators and an appropriate nest."
Tweed says he's spotted a half-dozen alligators in the wild here over the past decade.
Walker says he's worked with reptiles in the Shelby County area for 25 years and has only seen a few alligators.
"If you come across two alligators in a year, that's a lot," Walker says. "If you're not hunting them, you won't see them here at all. It's like hunting the Loch Ness monster. You have to see alligators for yourself to truly believe they are [in Shelby County]."
"They're few and far between, but they are here," Tweed says. "They're found throughout the county, but there's not a giant population of them like you would have in Florida or Louisiana."
One thing that all of the professionals agree on is that alligators here don't pose a danger to humans. Alligators eat fish, turtles, snakes, small mammals, and, unfortunately, small pets if they can get one.
"As long as they stay away from people, they're very, very successful animals," Baker says. "They don't need to eat a lot, they don't eat frequently, and they don't waste a lot of energy. The only things that are going to kill them around here, if they're a decent size, are people, cars, and boats.
One animal that does have a significant and stable presence in Shelby County is the coyote, which can be found in the inner city as well as rural areas.
Michael Kennedy, a professor in the University of Memphis biology department, says the presence of coyotes in the Memphis area represents a natural dispersal of the species.
"They have expanded their distribution gradually over time," Kennedy says. "They have large home ranges and are capable of moving long distances over relatively short periods of time."
Tweed says the coyote, also known as the American jackal, is the most adaptable animal in North America, primarily because it eats anything, including rodents, immature deer, rabbits, turkeys, and occasionally snakes. And, as some Midtowners have discovered, your pet may be on the menu as well.
Alan Adams, owner of American Wildlife Removal, says coyotes are aware that cats and small dogs are easy prey. "They're no challenge at all," he says. "It's harder for coyotes to catch a rabbit or some other little animal. It's easier for them to get a domestic animal. It's usually the small dogs — toy dogs, poodles. They may take a medium-size dog, but it would have to be a small-medium like a cocker spaniel."
So, should people fear them?
Not at all, Tweed says. "They don't attack people. They don't like people, because we're about their only predator," he says. "The only other thing around this part of the country that is going to eat one of them would be an alligator."
"If there's a small amount of food available, a female coyote won't have a large litter," Adams says. "This can be attributed to her not having enough energy to have a large litter, as well as her instinct that she won't be able to support a huge litter."
Another animal that's present in surprising numbers in Shelby County is the bobcat, Tennessee's native big cat. They're commonly found in the Wolf River bottoms, on Presidents Island, Ensley Bottoms, the north end of Mud Island, Collierville, Cordova, Shelby Farms, and near the Stonebridge Golf Course in Lakeland, according to Tweed and Adams.
Adams says he's had to remove his share of them over the years and that there are more bobcats here than people think. Most people don't see them, because they're a shy animal and prefer wooded areas.
"I would consider anybody lucky if they were able to see a bobcat in the wild, because they're so elusive," Adams says. "Unless they've been spooked or chased by something, you're not going to see them outside of a wooded area. They may be in fields and open areas if they're hunting for mice, rats, and rabbits, but normally they're going to stay close to the woods."
"A healthy population of bobcats only means that we have an abundance of rabbits or rodents," Tweed says. "We have a lot of rodents here and all kinds of other stuff for them to eat, so the population is up. When they start running out of little critters to eat, their population will start to go back down."
And speaking of rodents, Shelby County is also home to hundreds of the second-largest rodent in the world: the beaver. Adams says he deals with beavers more than any other wildlife and that they're common in the Loosahatchie and Wolf rivers and Nonconnah Creek.
"They will pair up and mate for life, similar to a marriage," Adams says. "In January, they breed, and in May, they have their babies."
Around here, Adams says, the average beaver is around 40 pounds. Their length can vary from two to four feet. The largest beaver he's ever picked up in Shelby County was 72 pounds.
"Primarily, they're out at night. They're dark brown, so it's hard to see them in the water," Adams says. "They're going to try to avoid any human contact or conflict."
Beavers eat bark and leaves and some aquatic plants. Their only predators here are bobcats and coyotes. And maybe an alligator?
"Those are the only two things that will even attempt to eat a beaver, and normally, it'll be a small beaver out of water, because if it's in water, they're not going to be able to catch it. They're excellent swimmers," Adams says.
Snakes? We got 'em.
The Memphis area is home to about a dozen species of non-venomous snakes, including the milk snake, king snake, gray rat snake, brown snake, garter snake, and corn snake. There are two venomous species locally: the copperhead and the cottonmouth, better known as the water moccasin.
The water moccasin is a territorial reptile that feasts on other water snakes, fish, and small rodents, according to Miller. They can be found in the rivers, lakes, and creeks that run throughout the county.
Adams says he likes most snakes but not the water moccasin:
"They've got a real nasty disposition. Most snakes will try to get away from you, but water moccasins don't. They stand their ground. I've actually had one of them come straight toward me. They're really territorial. That's not a poisonous snake you want to play with. They're mean."
But Adams says the good thing about the water moccasin is that it stays very close to the water's edge. The chance of seeing one in your backyard is very slim.
Unlike the water moccasin, the copperhead isn't aggressive, but you might see it hanging around your deck. Adams has removed several copperheads from backyards, but it's usually because the house is near a wooded area and the snake is searching for food.
"They tend to be a little more solitary and hidden," he says. "They'll bite if they're threatened or if you step on them accidentally, but normally, they try to get away from you instead of standing their ground like the water moccasin."
Tweed says people should beware of copperheads if they have a woodpile. "That's a good place for a copperhead to make a home," he says. "It's warm in the winter and cool in the summer."
Think something's fishy around here? There's a reason. Bill Simco, professor of biology at the University of Memphis and co-director of its ecological research center, says there's a wide diversity of fish in the area, including 52 species that have been collected from the Wolf River alone.
Simco says fish in the area include bowfin, carp, hog suckers, mosquito fish, pirate perch, largemouth bass, and a half-dozen species of catfish, plus the largest fish in North America, the alligator gar, which can reach 10 feet at maturity.
The Memphis area is also home to dozens of bird species, from bald eagles (often seen flying around the lakes in Shelby Forest and along the Mississippi) to tiny hummingbirds.
Michael Collins, assistant professor of biology at Rhodes College, says there are over 250 species of bird that can be found in the county at any one point in the year. Birds of prey, such as hawks, eagles, and owls, are found all over the city and county — in parks, woodlots, backyards, and even along major roads, such as Sam Cooper Blvd. and I-240. These birds can be a potential threat to small pets.
"Attacks on pets are rare but do occur," Collins says.
"Great horned owls and red-tailed hawks feed mostly on small mammals such as rodents but have been known to attack small pets. As horrifying as a wild bird attacking a pet might sound, keep in mind that these birds of prey are trying only to eat and that these events are rare."
Memphis is blessed to be an urban area with such a broad diversity of wildlife, and most of our critters are not a threat to humans as long as humans don't threaten them. Stephan Schoech, professor of biology at the U of M, says he doesn't consider any animal a threat, but it's imperative to use common sense when dealing with wildlife.
"If you don't bother them, they're not going to bother you," Schoech says. "If you step on a snake, it doesn't matter what kind of snake it is, it's liable to bite you. If you start poking at an animal, you're liable to get bitten. If you don't, you won't. Wild animals don't come after people for sport; they go the opposite direction if given the chance."
When it comes to Memphis wildlife, the old rule applies: Look but don't touch.