As Felicitie Gillette entered the waters of Lake Hernando early Wednesday, there was no way for her to know she’d soon become the latest statistic in an alarming and exceptionally Floridian trend — alligator attacks.
The American alligator, one of the Sunshine State’s most ubiquitous reptiles, wasn’t always so. At one point, they were hunted to near extinction and placed on the endangered species list until it was taken off in 1987.
Since then, scientists say, gator attacks have been on the rise in Florida.
Humans may be to blame.
According to Inside Science, a science news publication, gator bites in Florida "have been on the rise, increasing from an average of just one every three years between 1988 and 1999 to about seven per year between 2000 and 2016."
Statistics from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission differ, but still show an increase in the number of alligator bites suffered by humans since gators came off the endangered species list. Bites have increased from about six per year from 1971 through 1986 to about 10 per year from 1987 through 2017, according to FWC data.
As population and development has increased in Florida, scientists say, so too have alligator attacks.
University of North Florida researchers, studying interaction between humans and alligators, presented their findings to the Ecological Society of America earlier this month. Of the many factors they studied, including temperature and rain, they found that humans were the only logical thing to blame for conflicts.
"Using simple pairwise linear regression, we found that only human population size was a reliable predictor of alligator attack rates in Florida during the period 1988-2016," Morgan Golden-Ebanks and Adam E. Rosenblatt wrote in the study. "As a result, management of human-alligator conflict should focus on limiting human-alligator interactions and preventing the further development of areas used by alligators."
Gillette, 24, was a homeless woman bathing in the lake at about 1 a.m. Wednesday when the alligator grabbed her arm and tried to pull her under, according to the Citrus County Chronicle. A friend helped her escape, and she was treated and released at a local hospital, the Chronicle reported.
In light of the attack, the wildlife commission is ramping up efforts to keep the public safe around gators.
"We’re stepping up our actions when it comes to gators because, of course, public safety is paramount," FWC spokeswoman Karen Parker said. "If you’ve got a body of water in Florida, there’s a good chance there’s an alligator in it."
Since 2011, Parker said, 36 nuisance alligators have been removed from Lake Hernando alone. When FWC is notified of nuisance gators, it issues permits to contracted trappers who can sell off the gator’s hide and meat. At least 32 permits have been issued in Lake Hernando since 2011, Parker said, some for multiple gators.
Alligators are considered nuisance if they are more than 4 feet long and are believed to pose a threat to people, pets or property. The gator in Wednesday’s incident is believed to be up to 6-feet long.
"FWC’s response to alligator bite incidents is to remove the alligator involved," she said. "Every effort is made to ensure the responsible alligator has been removed."
Statewide, FWC said it receives an average of 15,000 nuisance alligator complaints annually between 2012 and 2016. That led to the removal of more than 7,000 gators per year.
After Wednesday’s incident, FWC said two gators were removed: one was more than 6-feet long, the other over 7-feet.
"Swimming in a lake, like just now, and it came up out of nowhere and attacked," she told the 911 operator. "He was shaking me."
Alligators have been known to turn up in places where the public might not to expect to encounter one — and those encounters can quickly turn deadly. They’re also not exclusive to Florida.
A 45-year-old woman was killed Monday during an alligator attack in Hilton Head, S.C. Cassandra Cline was walking her dog near a lagoon in a private resort when the gator attacked the dog. She died trying to rescue it.
In June, a South Florida woman was bit and killed by an alligator at Silver Lakes Rotary Nature Park lake in Davie. Like Cline, Shizuka Matsuki was walking her dogs when she was attacked.
The FWC said dog walkers should keep pets at least 10 feet from the water’s edge to try and avoid attacks. Parker said dogs and cats can appear like an alligator’s natural prey, prompting attacks. The best way to keep your pets safe, she said, is to not bring them near a lake.
Even the "most magical place on earth" is not immune to gator attacks. In June 2016, a Nebraska toddler was bending down to gather sand for a sandcastle at the edge of a lagoon on Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort. A 7-foot gator reached up and bit the boy’s head. His father tried to save him, but couldn’t wrestle his son from the gator’s jaw. An FWC report said the cause of death of the 2-year-old was a crushing bite to the head and drowning.
The FWC offered these tips for reducing the likelihood of a gator attack:
• Never feed an alligator. It’s illegal and causes alligators to overcome their natural wariness and learn to associate people with food.
• Keep your distance if you see one. Alligators may look lethargic but can move quickly.
• Swim only in designated swimming areas during daylight hours. Alligators are most active between dusk and dawn.
• Keep pets away from the water (at least 10 feet from the water’s edge).
The FWC encourages anyone who believes a specific alligator poses a threat to people, pets or property to call the Nuisance Alligator Hotline at (866) 392-4286.
Daniel Figueroa IV can be reached at [email protected] Follow @danuscripts