Floridians on alert after gator attacks

3 people killed in week in different regions


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Dry weather has pushed them out of the Everglades and into backyard canals, where they concentrate in greater, hungry numbers. Mating season has made males more territorial.

And then there are the people - hundreds moving into Florida each day, taking over what was once wildlife territory and, in some cases, feeding the dangerous reptiles like pets.

All these factors, plus a heavy dose of coincidence, are probably to blame in the recent string of deadly alligator attacks across the state, wildlife biologists said yesterday. There have been three alligator-related fatalities in the past week; before that, there had been only 17 since 1948.

"You have a perfect combination of events that make them act in this unusual way," said Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife scientist with the University of Florida. "I don't ever remember a time when we've had this many fatal attacks."

Officials advise people to stop feeding alligators and stay away from the edge of canals, especially with children or pets.

But they say there is no reason to panic. You're more likely to be attacked by a shark or struck by lightning than attacked by an alligator in Florida. In fact, nationwide, the deadliest animal is the deer, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History, because of the roughly 130 fatal car accidents they are involved in each year.

There are no witnesses to the gator attacks, which authorities say occurred in different parts of the state in apparently different situations - to a 28-year-old woman jogging near Markham Park in South Florida May 9 when, officials say, she was attacked and pulled into the water; to a Tennessee woman attacked Sunday while snorkeling in Juniper Run in the north-central Ocala National Forest; and to a 43-year-old woman found dismembered Sunday in a canal just north of Tampa Bay on the Gulf Coast.

Allan Woodward of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission called the string "an unfortunate coincidence" and a statistical fluke. He said most alligators are not aggressive. Between 1 million and 2 million of them live in Florida, but the state usually has only about six or seven non-fatal attacks a year.

"It just happens these all happened at once," he said.

Woodward added, however, that dry conditions have pushed more alligators into residential areas. According to the National Weather Service, the Everglades and Southwest Florida are experiencing drought conditions, while the rest of South Florida has been "abnormally dry." This has coincided with mating season, which starts in May and ends in June.

Woodward said feeding alligators does make them more aggressive. He advised people to keep about five feet away from the edge of water known to have alligators.

Laura Brandt, a senior wildlife biologist with the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, said that during the wet season, her surveys usually turn up two or three alligators per square kilometer. Now, she says, it is closer to 10.

But it's not just a matter of alligator density that causes attacks, she said. In 1989, during a drought, she said, the area had so many alligators, "you could walk across them." How many fatal attacks did they have that year? "None."

Jamie Malernee writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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