CORAL GABLES — Three dead dogs, and Chris Marin has had it. He's lived along a canal for several years, and never had a fear of the water — until now.
"When we first moved in, I even put a swing on a tree here for my kids to plunge into the canal," Marin said.
Then the poodles began to vanish — first Spotty, then Luna and Angel. The culprit? In much of Florida, the suspect would be an alligator. In this case, it's an 11-foot American crocodile.
Marin, 49, said living on the water just isn't worth it anymore. He's moving.
Listed as a federally endangered species in 1975, after hunting and habitat loss nearly wiped it from the wild, the American crocodile has resurged. Today, the population is about 2,000 at the southern tip of Florida, the species' only U.S. habitat, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has downgraded its status to threatened.
As it returns to its historical range — now populated by millions of humans — the crocodile, which can grow to 15 feet, will be living more in people's back yards.
It's alarming to some residents, even in a state that has more than a million alligators.
Alligators can be found in any freshwater body in the state, likely part of the reason for so many attacks on humans — at least 312 unprovoked ones in Florida since 1948, 22 of them fatal — but crocodiles are confined to South Florida, the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist.
American crocodiles have never made a documented attack on a human in the United States.
Several developments have aided the crocodile's recovery, including habitat protection. The animal has found an unlikely home on the grounds of Florida Power and Light's Turkey Point nuclear plant about 30 miles south of Miami.
The remoteness of the site, which is closed to the public, has given the crocodiles room to breed. They've reproduced so successfully that they're venturing out to populated areas.
Some are ending up in neighborhoods close to the coast, which crocs consider prime habitat, while alligators prefer fresher inland water. Christine Esco, who lives down the street from Marin, has a crocodile in her back yard canal that's become so well known he's even got a name: Pancho. It's the same croc authorities suspect ate Marin's dogs.
The 11-footer has been relocated twice to remote areas, and twice he's returned.
Unlike the crocodile, whose protected status means it can only be relocated or put into captivity, problem alligators typically end up as meat and hide.
As for Pancho, the next time he is caught, he'll go to a zoo. Crocodiles get two chances. The third time they return, they are put in captivity.
Wildlife officials say residents simply need to take precautions: no swimming in crocodile waters between dusk and dawn, when they feed; supervise children near canals; and keep your pets well away from the water's edge.
American crocodiles are generally less aggressive and more shy than alligators, and "the truth is you're more likely to drown than be attacked by an alligator or a crocodile," said University of Florida professor Frank Mazzotti.
"That said, don't be stupid."