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Exclusive: Alligator attacks: Separating fact from fiction

State wildlife scientists look for patterns, characteristics of attacks by the reptiles with a goal of reducing risk.

Sep. 10, 2012   |  
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ALLIGATOR LIES IN POND
A 5-foot alligator lays in a pond with its snout in the water as a dragonfly rests on its head at Eastwood Golf Course in east Fort Myers. / news-press.com file photo
The dead body of a 12-foot alligator lies in the back of a Sanibel Police pickup truck in 2004. The gator had attacked a woman near a pond on Sanibel. / news-press.com file photo

Time of day

The alligator-bite database indicates the time of day for 468 incidents.
Of those, 144 (30.76 percent) occurred at dusk, evening or night. Victims’ activities during these incidents included investigating a dog barking in the backyard, gigging frogs, lying on a boogie board in a lake, gathering mussels, sleeping near the shore of a lake, floating on back with boat cushion on chest during candlelight service at 4-H camp, fleeing Miccosukee Police Department.

Thirty-one victims were known to have been impaired by alcohol or drugs; five were fatalities. Activities included trying to save a dog from alligator, trying to capture a 3-foot-9-inch alligator on roadway, riding ATV in muddy area, sitting on a rock by lake at night smoking a cigarette, taunting minnows with a string, swimming, diving and harassing small alligators.

The most common activity for alligator-bite victims is handling alligators, 159 cases. Handling incidents include hunting alligators, capturing nuisance alligators, removing alligator from roadway, removing alligator from fishing line, removing alligator from swimming pool, and one man on an airboat who picked up a 3-foot alligator by the tail and ended up with a laceration on his right forearm that required 15 to 18 stitches.

The activities for 39 incidents are listed as “other,” which includes riding a bicycle and falling into a canal, washing hands over the side of a barge, cleaning fish at the edge of the water, repairing a vehicle by the side of the road and releasing a tadpole.

Donald Dunn, formerly of North Fort Myers, holds the Florida record for alligator incidents with four, all while he was retrieving golf balls from water hazards. The first incident, in 1989 when Dunn was 51, occurred at the Dunes Country Club on Sanibel and ended with no injury because the 9-foot-6-inch alligator bit into Dunn’s wetsuit. In 1993 and twice in 2002, Dunn received lacerations when alligators, all between 6 and 7 feet long, bit him on the hands.

Constance Gittles, of Punta Gorda, was watering her garden outside her home in the Blue Heron mobile home park in 2006 when a gator bit her on her leg. She fended it off by hitting it with a sprinkler nozzle. / news-press.com file photo
In this April 2002 file photo, Ruth Gay, 85, sits with Blue, who fought off an alligator as Gay lay helpless behind a Fort Myers Shores home. / news-press.com file photo
Alligator attack survivor Winston Goodwin, from LaBelle, demonstrates in 2000 the direction from which he recalls being attacked by a 10-foot alligator. / news-press.com file photo
Margaret Webb, then 90, lost her leg when she was attacked by an alligator in 2011 in the front yard of her Copeland home. / news-press.com file photo
Margaret Webb, then 90, shows where her leg was amputated after she was attacked by an alligator in 2011. / news-press.com file photo

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>> Related link: Database: Florida's alligator bites - 1928-2011

Donald Poole never saw the alligator on the sixth fairway of the Villages’ Bacall golf course in Lake County.

But soon after the 67-year-old Poole drove his tee shot into the high grass near a water hazard April 28, 2007, he became entangled in a string of alligator-bite statistics.

“It was a very small alligator — it might have been 3½ feet,” Poole said. “It sort of jumped up and latched onto my leg. I was looking at it, and it was looking at me, and I bent over and smacked it in the face.

“It let go, and I called to my wife and said, ‘Silky, the game’s over.’ She said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I got bit by an alligator.’ ”

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Alligator Bite Database, which lists all known alligator incidents dating back to 1928, Poole is:

■ One of 11 golfers bitten by alligators.

■ One of 310 people bitten by an unprovoked alligator.

■ One of 69 people bitten by an alligator known to have been fed.

■ One of 43 bite victims between the ages of 61 and 70.

■ One of 16 people bitten in Lake County.

Database history

In all, the database contains 579 incidents, including cases in which the alligator didn’t bite the victim – for example, when an alligator bit someone’s swim fin or a swimmer bumped into an alligator, and the alligator caused no injury.

State wildlife scientists started keeping alligator-bite data seriously in the mid-1970s.

“There was no organized way of collecting the information before about 1976,” said Allan “Woody” Woodward, director of the FWC Wildlife Research Laboratory in Gainesville. “The agency started keeping data a little before, but it was haphazard. Before 1971, people often didn’t report alligator attacks to FWC unless it was extremely serious. If somebody was bitten on the foot, it wasn’t remarkable enough to report to our agency.”

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This is why the database lists one incident each in the 1920s and 1940s, six in the 1950s and none in the 1960s.

These days, FWC scientists are trying to record every alligator incident in the state.

Each incident in the database is listed with more than 40 categories, including the victim’s name, age and race, location of the incident, what the victim was doing at the time, the time of day, which body part or parts were bitten, size and sex of the alligator, and severity of the bite or bites.

“We ultimately want to reduce the risk of alligator attacks and incidents,” Woodward said. “We’re trying to find patterns and characteristics of alligator bites and advise the public how to avoid them.

“There have been a lot of theories put out about why alligators attack people. I’m looking into trying to find out if there is merit to those.”

Theories

One of those theories is that only alligators that have been fed will attack people; unfed alligators have a natural fear of people, the theory states, but fed alligators lose that fear and associate people with food.

While feeding alligators is a bad idea because they lose their fear of people, which is why feeding alligators is against state law, the database doesn’t support the theory.

“A lot of alligators that have attacked people have not been fed,” Woodward said. “Some attacks have been true predatory attacks.”

Scientists don’t know whether an alligator that bites a human has been fed in every case, but the database shows the biting alligator had not been fed in 227, or 76.68 percent, of the 296 cases in which that detail is known.

Two of the 22 alligators in fatal attacks in Florida were known to have been fed; five are listed as non-fed, including the 11-foot-10-inch alligator that killed Janie Melsek on July 21, 2004, on Sanibel and the 10-foot-8-inch alligator that killed Robert Steele on Sept. 11, 2001, also on Sanibel; the rest are listed as unknown.

Another theory scientists are looking at is the time of year when alligators bite humans.

(Page 3 of 4)

“One thing we hear a lot of times is that alligators bite more people in the spring during breeding season when there is territorial defense,” Woodward said. “We’ve found that the incidence of attacks peaks out in midsummer. It’s more related to higher water temperatures. Alligators are more active. They eat more, and more people are in the water.”

Lee County incidents

The database shows Lee County ranks second in alligator incidents with 43, compared with Polk County’s 52.

Only 40 of Lee County’s incidents, however, were actually bites: In two cases, snorkelers were bitten on a swim fin, and in one, a snorkeler suffered minor lacerations on his right fist from punching an alligator.

Lee County also is tied with Charlotte County for the number of fatal alligator incidents with three.

“Alligators are not more aggressive in those two counties,” Woodward said. “It’s a combination of canal systems, creeks, ponds and golf courses in proximity to people. If you look at an aerial of Lee County, you might see why there are more incidents there. If you’re next to a place that produces a lot of alligators, that can be problematic.”

Unrecorded incidents

Although the state started keeping alligator-incident data seriously in the mid-1970s, not every incident since then is on the database.

During the summer of 1988, Mark “Bird” Westall, who was licensed to relocate nuisance alligators on Sanibel, was bitten on the right calf while capturing a 12-foot alligator but didn’t report the incident to the state.

At the time, Sanibel’s policy was for its own licensed trappers to capture and relocate nuisance alligators on the island, whereas the state’s policy was for professional trappers to capture and destroy nuisance alligators.

The Sanibel incident occurred a few weeks after a 10-foot-7-inch alligator killed 4-year-old Erin Glover in Charlotte County, and Westall didn’t report it because he believed the state would force Sanibel to change its alligator policy.

“If the state heard that Sanibel’s licensed trapper got bit, what better excuse?” Westall said. “They’d want the pros to come in.”

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Sanibel changed its policy to coincide with the state’s in 2004, two weeks after Melsek’s death.

Golf and gators

Florida has a history of alligator incidents on golf courses — the database’s first alligator attack is from 1928; it involved a male child, age and name unknown, who had been wading in a golf course pond on the Gulf Coast; the victim drowned during the attack.

One database category, therefore, concerns whether an incident was golf-related.

In all, 53 alligator incidents have occurred on golf courses, resulting in two serious injuries and one fatality.

Thirty-seven incidents involved non-golfers retrieving golf balls for profit; this category includes people scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, wading and walking.

“Some of these guys do it for years and don’t get bit,” Woodward said. “The water’s murky, and sometimes they bump into an alligator, and it whips around and bites them. The alligator feels threatened and bites defensively. Sometimes it’s not defensive.

“It must pay off somewhere. I hope it does.”

Former golf ball diver Ramiro Palma, owner of Scubavice Dive Center in Fort Myers, said balls can be worth pennies to more than $1 apiece.

“You’ve always got alligators in the back of your mind,” Palma said. “The water’s always dirty, and you’re rooting through the mud for balls. When you come to the surface, you do a 360 to see if there are any alligators, and you’re face-to-face with one. And you turn, and there’s another one. It’s kind of funny when it happens.

“Diving for golf balls has gotten to be a big business. A lot of guys do it, and the chances of getting hurt are really pretty slim.”

When Donald Poole teed off on the sixth at The Villages in 2007, he wasn’t thinking about alligators, and the incident hasn’t kept him off the course.

“I went and played golf the next day,” he said. “I tend to be a little more attentive now. If I hit into tall grass near the water, I look before I leap.”

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