Two endangered American crocodiles, once considered among the most imperiled species in the United States, were found shot to death near Key West, authorities said Tuesday.
Both crocodiles, a 7-footer found Saturday and an 8-footer discovered Monday on Sugarloaf Key about 12 miles east of Key West, were shot between the eyes, authorities said.
A small caliber bullet was found lodged in one crocodile's head. The other also appeared to have a bullet wound between the eyes. Both animals will be examined for a cause of death.
While the crocodile is protected under the Endangered Species Act, it has been slowly reclaiming its range up the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from a last stronghold in northeastern Florida Bay.
The numbers have climbed to nearly 1,000 from a low point in the 1970s of fewer than 300, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year to propose upgrading its status to threatened.
They are found nowhere else in the country.
Crocodiles are protected under both state and federal law. Killing a crocodile is a third-degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to five years in prison.
The two dead crocodiles were 7-year residents of a pond in an affluent rural neighborhood, said Officer Gordon Sharp of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The animals were discovered about three miles apart several miles away from the pond.
"This killing in my opinion is a result of public concern for the safety of their kids and pets," Sharp said, adding that he has responded to numerous complaints about the animals from residents in the area.
There have been no documented attacks by American crocodiles on human beings in the United States.
Such indiscriminate killings of crocodiles are extremely rare, said commission spokeswoman Dani Moschella in West Palm Beach.
"They were well-fed, healthy crocodiles living in a pond that was rich in bird life so they had plenty of prey," she said.
Moschella would not say whether authorities had suspects, citing the ongoing investigation.
She said officers could only recall one other such incident in recent memory, when a man was arrested in December for dragging a well-known crocodile nicknamed "Charlie" to its death behind a Hummer.
Authorities have issued warrants for four others in that incident in Key Largo near the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles south of Miami.