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Woman paddling on Hillsborough River bitten by alligator

THONOTOSASSA — A woman canoeing in the Hills­borough River was attacked and bitten in the leg by an alligator Thursday afternoon near John B. Sargeant Park, an incident authorities are calling unusual.

Navigated by a sheriff's helicopter circling above, a crew launched a motorized boat and canoes to reach the victim and another woman with her in the canoe.

Andrea Reese, 20, of Uniontown, Ohio, sustained injuries to her left thigh and calf, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The attack occurred around 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

Reese was listed in good condition Thursday evening at Tampa General Hospital and was declining interviews, a hospital spokesman said.

The other woman in the canoe, Morgan Fusselman, also 20 and from Uniontown, was not injured, officials said.

The women didn't have any food, small animals or anything that would attract an alligator, said FWC spokesman Baryl Martin. This kind of unprovoked attack is unusual, he said. The alligator was estimated to be 6 feet long.

The 23-acre park, which is part of the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, is best known for its boating access to the Hillsborough River and has canoes available for rent. Reese and Fusselman rented the canoe they were paddling and were about 45 minutes from the park down river when the attack occurred.

Michael Cole, manager of Canoe Escape, which rents canoes at the park, was about 10 minutes away when an employee called to tell him about the attack.

He rushed back to the park to help. He and three paramedics took two canoes. They reached the women in about 20 minutes. Reese was conscious and responsive, Cole said. A paramedic dressed her wound, and they got her back to the boat ramp and a waiting ambulance in about 20 minutes, he said.

Cole, 23, said the shop has not seen an incident like this in at least two decades. Employees go over safety with renters and offer paddling tips, he said.

"It's the last thing you want to hear. You know it's a possibility, but the probability is just not there," he said. "But in the outdoors, anything is possible and freakish accidents can occur."

Alligators are usually docile, said Vernon Yates, director of Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation in Seminole.

"The rule of thumb is alligators are not aggressive creatures," Yates said. "They're shy and want to be left alone."

He said it's possible for someone to bump an alligator in the water without seeing it, particularly in an area with a lot of weeds.

"You don't know what happened to the alligator five minutes before she came up on it," Yates said.

The FWC was conducting an alligator bite investigation and planned to contact the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program to determine whether the alligator should be tracked and trapped.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Liz Crampton contributed to this report.

Crews used a motorboat and canoes, with a sheriff’s helicopter overhead, to reach the injured woman in her canoe.

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office

Crews used a motorboat and canoes, with a sheriff’s helicopter overhead, to reach the injured woman in her canoe.

Woman paddling on Hillsborough River bitten by alligator 08/07/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 8, 2014 6:11pm]
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