- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

MIAMI — Trapper Todd Hardwick typically gets about four nuisance alligator calls each day, but now he is getting 15 after an unprecedented burst of three deadly gator attacks in a week.

“People are shook up,” Mr. Hardwick said just before capturing a 9-foot, 4-inch alligator yesterday in a residential lake north of Miami. “It’s like the citizens of Florida have declared war on alligators. People are really going crazy.”

Before the most recent attacks, only 17 official deaths had been recorded in Florida since 1948, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. But wildlife officials said there is no pattern or common element to the attacks.

One victim was a jogger whose body was found in a canal in Broward County, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast; one was snorkeling in a recreation area near Lake George, in the central part of the state; another was found in a canal about 20 miles north of St. Petersburg, the state’s Gulf Coast.

“These are unfortunate, unrelated coincidences,” commission spokesman Willie Puz said. “We still caution everyone: Pay attention to your surroundings. Pay attention to what’s in the water. Alligators are predators and wild animals that should be treated with respect.”

Two of the bodies were found Sunday. Annemarie Campbell, 23, of Paris, Tenn., was attacked while snorkeling in a secluded recreation area near Lake George about 50 miles southeast of Gainesville, said state wildlife spokeswoman Kat Kelley.

“The people she was staying with came around and found her inside the gator’s mouth,” said Marion County Fire-Rescue Capt. Joe Amigliore. By poking the alligator’s eyes and trying to open its jaws, the men were able to free Miss Campbell’s body, but she was dead when they found her, the Ocala Star-Banner reported.

Her stepfather, who had tried to help her, was treated on the scene for a hand injury.

“You just don’t think of your daughter dying from an alligator,” Miss Campbell’s mother, Dawn Marie Yankeelov, told the newspaper.

In Pinellas County, the body of another woman apparently killed by an alligator was found in a canal 20 miles north of St. Petersburg, authorities said. Judy W. Cooper’s body had been in the water for about three days, authorities said.

The 43-year-old Dunedin woman suffered animal bites consistent with an alligator, which “did play some part in the victim’s death,” according to a preliminary autopsy.

“We don’t know the condition she was in when this happened,” state wildlife spokesman Gary Morse said. An official cause of death is not expected for several weeks.

Zack Auspitz said the recent deaths have made them think twice about going into the water. The 12-year-old and his family frequently swam in the lake where Mr. Hardwick made his capture yesterday.

“I think my limitation will be that dock right now,” said Zack, pointing to a floating wooden dock that used to serve as his diving platform. “I just don’t feel secure.”

Government researchers estimate there are 1 million to 2 million alligators in Florida, but there have only been 351 recorded attacks on humans in the past 58 years. In addition to the 17 fatal attacks before last week, nine other deaths are unconfirmed, mainly because it was not clear whether the person was already dead when the alligator attacked.

Alligators generally shy away from people and are far less aggressive than related species such as Nile crocodiles, said Kent Vliet, a University of Florida zoology professor. The three attacks came at the peak of mating season, when alligators are moving around in search of the opposite sex.

Alligator encounters with humans can also increase as more natural habitat is lost to development. The jogger who died, 28-year-old student Yovy Suarez Jimenez, was found in an area that was once part of the Everglades.

“We are building more and more into wild territories,” Mr. Puz said.

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