Gators, Gators Everywhere -- But Why?

Speculation has been swirling about why three women were killed by alligators in one week in three different regions of Florida, with everything from mating season to the drought being pegged as culprits.

Gator experts agree that there are a few possible causes for the attacks. But they also believe the trio of deadly incidents was more a freak of nature than anything else.

“Everybody’s got their own ideas about things, but it’s just a rare coincidence,” said Ed Froehlich, an alligator farmer who has been raising the animals for 40 years. “These areas (where the attacks occurred) weren’t very concentrated with alligators. It’s not like alligators are vicious and hunting people.”

On May 6, the body of 28-year-old model Yovy Suarez Jimenez was found in Sunrise, Broward County. She had gone out jogging and was killed by an alligator near a canal, according to police.

Two other bodies of women who died in alligator attacks turned up May 14. Judy W. Cooper, 43, was found in a canal north of St. Petersburg, in Pinellas County, and Annemarie Campbell, 23, was discovered near Lake George in Marion County.

Froehlich, who owns Froehlich’s Gator Farm in Christmas, Fla., said the state’s housing development boom, which has encroached upon the alligators’ habitat, and the increase in the animals’ interaction with humans are the most likely contributing factors to the recent attacks.

“Development all over the state is putting pressure on the animals. Alligators have to go further and further back,” he said. “Sometimes these developments are good living conditions for gators. And people are throwing them hotdogs and marshmallows. They get to losing their fear of people.”

Everglades tour guide Glenn Wilsey thinks the state’s development spike is the primary reason alligators are tangling with humans more frequently.

“There’s so much building going out into the Everglades that gators actually have nowhere else to go,” he said. “As the building comes, the gators are pushed back out into the Everglades a little further. When it’s done, they actually want to come back to the home they used to have.”

Gator trapper Todd Hardwick, who works for a Florida wildlife control company called Pesky Critters, echoed Froehlich’s sentiments, calling the fatal maulings of three women nothing more than a “horrible coincidence.”

Though various people have hypothesized that gators are more aggressive at this time of year because it’s mating season and more active when it’s dry because they’re searching for water, Hardwick said mating and the state’s drought have nothing to do with the attacks.

“We have dry season every three years and mating season every year,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason. I’m as stunned as anybody.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission disagrees, however, saying the lack of rain probably is contributing to the reptiles’ heightened activity levels.

“Our lakes, rivers and canals are much lower than they have been, so that could be concentrating the food the alligator eats, like fish, into deeper pools,” said Willie Puz, a spokesman for the commission. That, in turn, is pushing the alligators to travel greater distances to find their next meal and to congregate in areas where the food is.

Gators are also more mobile when the weather is hotter and they’re on the prowl for food, mates and territory, according to Puz. They tend to do their hunting in or near the water, which is also where people gather in the scorching heat.

“Alligators can be in any fresh water system in Florida,” said Puz. “They hunt their prey at the water’s edge … If you’re by the water, pay attention to your surroundings.”

Most importantly, he cautioned, never feed alligators, or they'll lose their instinctual fear of humans and become bolder and more feisty when they encounter people. Florida officials have warned that feeding a gator is the worst thing you can do if you want to avoid a dangerous encounter.

The spate of deadly attacks, and additional reports of human-gator squabbles that didn't end tragically, have led Hardwick and other gator trappers to be deluged with calls from skittish Florida residents who normally wouldn’t alert officials every time they spot one of the toothy reptiles on their property.

Under state law, trappers can’t release the animals back into the wild, but instead must have them put down and “harvested” for their hides and meat. There are a few lucky ones, though, like the 12-footer Hardwick caught on Wednesday.

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“It’s so big, I had to have a tow truck pick it up and put it in the back of my truck,” he said. “I’m going to try to donate him to a facility where he can live happily ever after.”