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Investigators still unsure why alligator bit woman in canoe

THONOTOSASSA — Investigators are still unsure why an alligator bit a woman paddling down the Hillsborough River near John B. Sargeant Park on Thursday afternoon.

Andrea Reese, a 20-year-old visitor from Uniontown, Ohio, was released from Tampa General Hospital within a few hours of the attack, but spokesman Baryl Martin said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would not try to trap the alligator that bit her.

"It's been decided by the experts this appears to be a defensive bite, not a predatory bite," Martin said Friday. "The injury was not as severe as it would have been if it was some other type of bite."

According to the 911 call provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the alligator left Reese with long gashes on her left thigh and calf. Martin said Reese and Morgan Fusselman, who is also 20 and from Ohio, were seated in the canoe when the attack happened, although it is unclear how the alligator reached in.

"As far as I know, they were unaware of the gator's presence until she was bitten," Martin said.

Reese and Fusselman could not be reached for comments.

Martin noted that it is nesting season, which might have contributed to the animal's aggression, but emphasized that such unprovoked attacks are extremely rare. He advised against swimming at dawn or dusk and suggested avoiding areas of heavy vegetation where it might be hard to spot an alligator in the water.

"It's a very unusual occurrence, but any time you're in a fresh body of water in Florida you have to assume there's a gator in there," Martin said. "If you see an alligator in the water, don't go swimming with it."

Michael Cole, the manager of Canoe Escape, the company that rented the canoe to the women, said customers are given the office's phone number to call in case of an emergency. Thursday was the first time he has ever needed to accompany first responders to a serious incident.

"We've paddled water out to (customers) and made sure they were okay, but it's never been something a first-aid kit couldn't solve," said Cole, 23.

Canoe Escape rents 15 to 25 canoes on a typical day, Cole said, and that number held steady on Friday. He noted that everyone who had a Friday reservation showed up, although one group opted to go for a walk instead after learning of the alligator.

"The No. 1 question we usually get asked is 'What about the alligators?' " Cole said. "We used to say it's never happened before. Now we have a new speech."

Contact Victoria Jacobsen at vjacobsen@tampabay.com. Follow @TwitrlessVicky

Investigators still unsure why alligator bit woman in canoe 08/08/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 8, 2014 10:21pm]
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