In the past week, three fatal alligator attacks have put Florida in the international spotlight. With headlines like, “When gators attack,” “Alligator war heats up,” “Florida in fear as alligators go on killing spree” and “In Florida, the alligators show their deadly fangs,” one would think the gators have declared a war against humans and are intent on taking their land back.
This is hardly the case.
Tampa’s residents are no strangers to alligators. In fact, the Hillsborough River is home to hundreds – and thousands of students have been exposed to them. USF’s Riverfront Park, located on Fletcher Avenue, has helped students maintain a relationship with the river. It provides cheap canoe and kayak rentals and has a ropes course and Frisbee golf course, among other facilities.
So, how often do its employees encounter alligators?
“Every day,” said Cindy Reilly, a Riverfront Park Facilities Specialist and park manager who has worked at the park for more than three years. “In fact, we have one big one that usually swims up and down in front of (the loading dock). It’s probably about seven or eight feet.”
For the past month, Reilly, a USF alumna with a degree in biology and a minor in geology, said people have been seeing more alligators than usual.
“Some people that went out yesterday, they saw four alligators and they were out for about an hour,” she said. “If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone – just like any other wild animal.”
Willie Puz, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, agreed.
“Alligators normally shy away from people,” he said. “They have a natural fear of humans.”
On May 10, the body of Yovy Suarez Jimenez, 28, was found dead in a canal in Sunrise with extensive alligator bites. Days later, a 9-foot-6 alligator was caught. The gator was believed to be responsible for Jimenez’s death.
On May 14, 23-year-old Annemarie Campbell was attacked and killed by an alligator while she was snorkeling in Lake George, located in Ocala National Forest. Four days later, an 11-foot-4, 407-pound alligator believed to have killed Campbell was caught.
Also on May 14, the body of Judy W. Cooper was found in a canal 20 miles north of St. Petersburg with alligator bites. Though the final cause of death has yet to be determined, preliminary autopsy reports state the alligator attack did play a role.
Prior to the three recent attacks, Florida has record of only 17 people dying from alligator attacks since 1948.
So if alligators are scared of humans, what provoked three attacks in one week?
“The first is that when the weather heats up, alligators become more active,” Puz said. “They start searching for food, territories and mates. The second is that Florida has been experiencing drought-like conditions for the past few months, so our lakes, rivers and canals are lower than what they normally are or would be now. And it could be concentrating the food source, such as fish, in certain deep-water pools, and it could be concentrating the alligators. The third is that when the weather heats up, people like to recreate outside and love to be in and on the water, so you have more people going into the water where alligators could be. A combination of those three could be contributing factors to what we saw last week.”
Reilly thinks nesting protection plays a role in the alligators’ behavior.
“This time of year is nesting season for them, so they are a little more aggressive than usual because they’re protecting their nests,” she said.
Reilly estimates that 750 USF-affiliated renters, mostly students, visited the park last April. In April 2005, an estimated 1,000 students visited the park. She said despite the recent attacks, the attitude of renters is hardly hysterical.
“We’ve definitely had people asking about it, but I don’t think it’s more than usual,” Reilly said.
Vivianna Kabbabe, a master’s student in the College of Student Affairs, and her boyfriend Brandon Thompson, an FSU alumnus, didn’t let fright keep them at bay when they decided to go canoeing Saturday.
“We’ve been out a couple of times, and we haven’t seen any,” Kabbabe said. “But we’re not going to let it stop us from having fun.”
One Riverfront employee has a theory about who is the most afraid.
“The foreign people and the people who aren’t native to Florida are the people who have a concern about it,” said Wakefield C. Wade, a sophomore in civil engineering who has worked at Riverfront Park for more than a year.
Taisiya Tribushnaya, a Riverfront Park ropes course facilitator and a junior in accounting, attests to this. Her boyfriend doesn’t like the idea of being in close proximity with the gators.
“Every time I say, ‘Babe, let’s go canoeing,’ he’s like, ‘No! There are alligators there!’ So he’s really paranoid – but he’s from Pennsylvania,” she said.
Some common questions are: “Are there alligators? Will they attack us? Has anybody ever been attacked out here?” Reilly said.
Her response to concerned renters parallels what experts continue to caution.
“Don’t harass them, don’t try to feed them, don’t paddle up to them and try to get close,” Reilly said. “They’re not going to bother you if you leave them alone.
“It’s not normal behavior for them to come and attack you because you’re not a food source for them,” she said. “Usually when they do it, it’s because you’re invading their space, like if there’s a nest there or you have done something to make them feel like they’re in danger.”
Puz emphasized staying far from alligators and the water banks.
“A big thing is (to) observe from a distance, because alligators are beautiful creatures, but they are wild animals and they are dangerous,” he said. “Pay attention if you’re at the water’s edge. Alligators are ambush predators that hunt at the water’s edge. And the third is, don’t feed an alligator, because when you do, it can lose its natural fear of humans and start associating people with a free food handout. It makes the alligators not behave as they should – shying away from people – but possibly approaching people.”
Eric Hunter, director of the Campus Recreation Department who has been at USF since 1986, has not heard of one instance where an alligator attacked a student. But he does know of one close encounter that occurred about 15 years ago.
A staffer was searching for a missing canoe when they came across an alligator hiding behind a tree.
“Upon seeing the human the alligator popped up upon its tail, standing several feet high and then fell into the river and swam away.”Wade remembers one incident that occurred about a year ago during mating season, though the victim was not a student.
“A lady was swimming down there with her dog,” he said. “The dog got eaten.”
Though there haven’t been any student attacks, the Riverfront staff takes precautions and makes sure all renters fill out a form with their information.
“The renters have two hours to go out,” Wade said. “If they don’t come back, we have a trolling motor and we go look for them. That’s why we take their names and all their information.”
If a student does get attacked, “Our policy is to call 911,” Reilly said. “There’s not really anything else we can do.”
Those who encounter alligators who pose a threat are encouraged to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s nuisance alligator hotline at 1-866-FWC-Gator (392-4286).
This report used information from the Associated Press.
DO NOT FEED THE GATORS and Other Safety Tips
Inform others that feeding alligators is illegal. When fed, alligators overcome their natural fear of people and learn to associate people with food.
Do not allow pets, especially dogs, to swim, exercise or drink in water that may contain alligators. Dogs are more susceptible to being attacked than humans because dogs resemble the natural prey of alligators.
Alligators are most active between dusk and dawn. Therefore, swim only during daylight hours.
Leave alligators alone. State law prohibits killing, harassing or possession of alligators.
FACTS ABOUT FLORIDA ALLIGATORS
Alligators can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh up to 1,000 pounds.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission receives more than 15,000 nuisance alligator complaints each year.
In 2005, 8,000 alligators were killed due to nuisance complaints. After being killed, the alligator’s meat is sold as food and the hide is tanned and turned into a product.
Florida has an estimated one million alligators.
Sources: nwf.org, Willie Puz, spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, http://myfwc.com/gators/faq/lwa.htm