Wed, May 17, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Floridians fearful after spate of alligator attacks

SCARED Three women dying in the jaws of gators in one week has shocked residents of a place where there have been only 17 recorded fatalities by alligators in 58 years

THE GUARDIAN , MIAMI

Zack Auspitz, 12, left, looks at a captured alligator that had been living in a lake behind his home in North Miami Beach, Florida, on Monday. He and his family frequently swam in the Miami-Dade County lake where the alligator was captured.

PHOTO: AP

Todd Hardwick's mobile phone has not stopped ringing for a week. May is always the busiest month for Florida's handful of licensed alligator trappers but three fatal attacks in six days have left residents of the sunshine state unusually jittery.

"They've just gone crazy about gators," said Hardwick, whose Miami-based company, Pesky Critters, has a contract with the state to remove "nuisance" reptiles from lakes and canals.

"Every alligator they see, no matter how small, is being called in for removal and we're going flat out to keep up," he said.

The wave of fear follows the gruesome deaths of three Florida women in a week, an unprecedented tally given that there were only 17 recorded fatalities by alligators in the previous 58 years, according to state wildlife officials.

Tourists and residents in Florida are being warned not to swim after dark or in areas of thick vegetation, to keep pets on a lead and to stay away from canals between dusk and dawn, when alligators are at their most active.

In the first attack in Sunrise, south Florida, a 2.9m alligator killed a student, Yovy Suarez Jimenez, as she jogged beside a canal. A medical examiner concluded that the 28-year-old was dragged into the water. The reptile was captured and killed at the weekend with the victim's arms still in its stomach.

At Lake St. George, 140km north of Orlando, a 23-year-old holidaymaker from Tennessee, Annmarie Campbell, was snorkeling in a meter of water when she was seized by an alligator estimated at almost 3m long. Her friends struggled to free her from the reptile's jaws.

"The people she was staying with came around and found her inside the gator's mouth," Marion County fire-rescue captain Joe Amigliore said.

"They jumped into the water and somehow pulled her out of the gator's mouth," he said. She was declared dead at the scene.

On Sunday, in Dunedin, on Florida's west coast, the dismembered body of Judy Cooper, a 43-year-old a mother of two was discovered.

Police found drug-taking equipment at the scene and a wildlife spokesman said it was not known what condition she was in at the time but the Pinellas County coroner said an alligator played a part in her death.

"This is my worst nightmare, I'm absolutely stunned by what's happened," said Hardwick.

He added that Florida's 1.4 million alligators are more aggressive at this time of year because it is the mating season and because water levels in the Everglades are low after a recent drought, forcing them into residential areas in search of food and water.

But officials are baffled as to why the number of attacks should have risen so steeply.

"The bottom line is too many gators and too little space. Until this week I would tell people that the odds of being attacked were extremely low, now I don't mention any statistics," Hardwick said.

Fearful Florida residents are taking heed of advice from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to take extra care near the state's extensive network of waterways. Sandy Jacobson, who lives on a lake in Sunrise, said she no longer allowed her two sons, aged five and nine, out to play on their own.

"We lost the screen around our swimming pool in Hurricane Wilma last year and there's no barrier between the house and the lake any more," she said. "It makes you much more wary. You take it for granted that there are alligators here but we've never had attacks like this. I always check the banks of the lake for alligators before going out."

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