Experts offer alligator safety advice after Disney tragedy

Deadly attacks rare despite nigh numbers of gators in state, experts say

By Crystal Moyer - Traffic/reporter

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - After a 2-year-old was dragged into a Disney resort lagoon by an alligator and killed Tuesday, local parents expressed concern about the safety of their loved ones around water.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates there are over one million alligators in Florida, but officials said gators are naturally afraid of humans and that the Disney incident is a rare occurrence.

The FWC reports Florida averages only about seven unprovoked bites per year that require serious medical attention.

READ: FWC data on alligator bites in Florida

"More people are killed by white-tailed deer and golf balls than they are alligators in this state, so this is not a thing you should lay awake at night worrying about,” said John Brueggen, director of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Nevertheless, visitors at the Alligator Farm said they were on high alert Wednesday.

"Just try not to get too close unless there's an adult with you. I make sure they know the guidelines on tours and to listen and watch,” Sultona Crawford said.

Brueggen said most times gators are difficult to spot in the wild, especially in dark, murky water.

"Alligators don't show much,” he explained. “They're like an iceberg, so the head, the eyes are showing, but everything else is hidden."

The deputy director of animal care at the Jacksonville Zoo said gators are very opportunistic.

"Don't assume that there's not a gator in a body of water, whether it's a water feature on a golf course or slow moving stream or a lake,” Dan Maloney said. "This time of the year, gators are going to be at their most active. They derive their energy from the sun, so reptiles are going to be more active when it's warm out. They're going to be a lot hungrier. They're going to be a lot more reactive."

Experts said gators:

  • Are most active between dusk and dawn, so stay out of the water at night.
  • Prefer fresh or brackish water.
  • Have a powerful bite force, no matter their size

"It's like the equivalent of a pickup truck sitting on their jaws, holding it shut,” Brueggen said.

Florida alligator bites in past decade

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data on unprovoked bites of humans by wild alligators. Major bites are those in which resulted in a death or the victims' injuries required medical care beyond first aids. Minor bites caused superficial injuries that required no treatment or only first aid.

People that work with alligators said an attack is not something most people can prepare for.

"It's really hard to say how these parents should have reacted,” Brueggen said. “I think I would have reacted the same way, going in the water after my child and doing whatever I can to get my child back."

But experts said it's important to not only know one's surroundings and keep an eye on loved ones, but to educate them, too.

Zach Sharpe said he takes that advice to heart.

"We warn him when we see the alligators, when we see the crocodiles, you can't touch them. They can hurt you,” Sharpe said.

If you find yourself in a confrontation with a gator, the best thing to do is fight back.

"The people who have gotten away have had some success at poking in their eyes. Their eyes are delicate,” Brueggen said. “They do go down inside their skull, but if you're grabbed by an alligator, if you give it everything you can to really poke their eyes, you may have them get upset enough to let go."

Maloney said it's also important to try to stay out of the water.

"Try your best not to get pulled into the water, because in those circumstances, they're going to have a great advantage over you,” Maloney said.

Gator experts also reminded the public to never feed or entice the animals. That behavior is both dangerous and illegal.

If you encounter an alligator that poses a threat to people or property, call FWC's Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 1-866-FWC-GATOR. The agency will evaluate your complaint, and if warranted will send a trapper to remove the animal. 

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