Florida Keys News
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Expert: Croc attack not a game changer

SOUTH FLORIDA -- An attack late last month on two swimmers in a Coral Gables canal was the first crocodile/human incident of its sort in North America.

But a leading Florida crocodile expert says the incident shouldn't be a game changer as far as the way American crocodiles are viewed by wildlife managers and the population at large.

"There has been both a recovery of the population of the American crocodiles and an increase in the number of humans, and that has resulted in increased human/crocodile interaction," said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife biologist who specializes in the study of alligators and crocodiles. "So this was really inevitable. That it didn't happen sooner is really attributable to the relatively shy nature of the species. Not only is it not aggressive, it's not particularly defensive."

According to media accounts, Alejandro Jimenez, 26, was bitten by an 12-foot-long crocodile at approximately 2 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 24, while swimming in a canal in the Gables by the Sea community near Biscayne Bay. He was taken to a hospital for treatment to his hand and shoulder. Lisset Rendon, 23, who was swimming with Jimenez, was treated at the scene for minor injuries. The suspected crocodile, dubbed Pancho, died during capture early last Friday morning after being hunted by trappers for several days.

Details of the attack were provided to the media by Jorge Pino, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He didn't take questions for this article.

"We don't know why these two individuals would be in a canal that's known to have crocodiles at such hour," Pino told The Miami Herald.

Though the apparent attack took place on the mainland, the increasing interaction between humans and crocodiles has been a topic of much debate in the Florida Keys as well over the past several years.

The South Florida crocodile population has grown from just 200 in 1975, when the reptile was placed on the endangered species list, to approximately 2,000 today. The species is now listed as threatened rather than endangered, a status that still provides the crocodile with substantial protection.

As populations have grown, many Keys residents, who were used to not having to deal with crocodiles, have had to adjust as some have taken up residence in local canals. Though many people advocate for the crocodiles, noting that they are a natural resident of the Keys habitat, others fear their presence.

Flare-ups in crocodile-related concern occurred in the Upper Keys in the spring of 2012, when a crocodile snatched a dog in Key Largo and drowned it, then again in the spring of 2013, when a crocodile nested just off the roadway in a Lower Matecumbe Key yard.

That crocodile, known by the FWC as Blue No. 9, was shot in the head and killed just three weeks later, apparently by a worried resident. The shooting, which is a felony due to the crocodile's protected status, has not been solved.

Another Key Largo dog escaped from a crocodile's grasp this past spring after it was attacked while swimming in a canal.

Though the FWC didn't take calls for this article, the agency has long maintained there is little it can do to prevent crocodiles from moving into residential neighborhoods as their population grows. Placing them in captivity is typically illegal, for example, due to their protected status.

In the wake of the backlash to the 2012 Key Largo dog incident, the agency loosened its guidelines on crocodile relocations, but moving them is often ineffectual. Crocodiles are territorial by nature and often return to a canal within weeks or even days.

American crocodiles are skittish and are unlikely to post a threat to humans, the FWC says. But the best way to protect against what threat exists is to exercise common sense. For example, the agency suggests fencing docks to protect small children and dogs and discourages swimming in canals where crocodile could be present.

Dave Purdo, an Islamorada councilman, says warnings like that aren't enough, especially in light of the Coral Gables attack.

"I, myself, am not very happy with that scenario of people possibly being bit now," he said last week. "What do we do with our residents? What do we tell our children?"

Purdo said changes need to be made in how crocodiles are managed, though he acknowledged he is unsure of what good options exist.

Mazzotti, though, said the Coral Gables attack doesn't alter the fact that American crocodiles pose only a very minimal risk to people. There had already been recorded attacks in Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and perhaps other countries, he said.

But the best way to avoid such situations is to not do something silly, like jumping into a canal in the middle of the night where crocodiles are known to reside.

"It doesn't change the general behavior of crocodiles," Mazzotti said. "They are still very shy. The chances for this type of thing happening are still very, very slim."

rsilk@keysnews.com

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