Florida Keys News
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Slain crocodile remembered with a beachside ceremony

ISLAMORADA -- Through the years, plenty of eccentric waterside memorials have been held in the Florida Keys for departed loved ones.

But it's unlikely any have been quite like the one held this past Sunday at the Port Antigua homeowner's park on Lower Matecumbe Key, where more than 30 people gathered to commemorate Blue No. 9, the female crocodile that was shot and killed near the Boy Scout's Florida Sea Base two weeks ago.

Blue ribbons hung on a buttonwood tree near the pavilion on the park's man-made beach. Most of the attendees wore blue. Photographs of Blue No. 9, who had resided in bayside Lower Matecumbe canals for several years, sat next to flyers advertising the $6,000 reward the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is offering for information that leads to the conviction of whoever shot the reptile. And custom-made cupcakes, both chocolate and vanilla, read "Blue No. 9."

Even those who gathered readily acknowledged that the event was definitely, let's just say, out-of-the-box.

"This is odd," Islamorada Vice Mayor Ted Blackburn said as he began his eulogy of the 9-foot crocodile.

Odd, said the attendees, but definitely serious.

"This is senseless killing. It's their habitat. We're living in it," organizer and Lower Matecumbe resident Laura Lynne Kennedy said of American crocodiles as the crowd assembled for the ceremony. "It's also to raise awareness and let the person who did this know we're after him."

Though Blue No. 9 was familiar to many in Lower Matecumbe's bayside neighborhoods, the crocodile drew special attention on April 23, when she nested on the front edge of the yard of Peter and Elaine Vlaun, just a few feet from the roadway. Wildlife officials waited for Blue to lay her 27 eggs and then transported her, at the behest of the Vlauns, to undeveloped bayside waters 4 miles north. The eggs were later found to be unviable.

Two weeks later, on May 6, a gunshot was heard near Sea Base, not far from the southern edge of Lower Mateucumbe, base director Keith Douglass said. Blue No. 9 was found in nearby mangroves six days later.

The animal, FWC Lt. Liz Riesz told the crowd at the memorial, was killed by gunshots to the head.

"She was basically assassinated while she was lying peacefully," Riesz said.

Killing a crocodile, which is designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Riesz said there are leads into the investigation of who shot Blue No. 9, and that bullet casings have already been turned over to a forensic lab for analysis.

She said the FWC has a team working the case.

"This is pretty huge that you guys are out here and we're absolutely for justice," Riesz said.

The frequency with which Keys residents encounter crocodiles has spiked in recent years as the toothy reptile's population has risen from less than 300 in 1975 to an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 now. The FWC says there has never been a documented case of a crocodile attacking a human in Florida. But the taking of a Key Largo dog by a crocodile in early 2012 brought out strong emotions, including numerous calls for a more aggressive crocodile relocation program. The FWC has since eased its relocation standards somewhat, though such removals can be a pointless exercise, since crocodiles often return to old stomping grounds.

Most of the attendees at the Blue No. 9 memorial said they enjoyed having her around.

"I think she's good for the neighborhood," Port Antigua Property Owner's Association head Larry Zettwoch said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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