The American alligator snaps its jaws shut with a force of 2,125 pounds, roughly equivalent to the pressure it would take to lift a midsized family sedan. It has somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 jagged teeth, and when it plunges them into prey like a small deer or Florida panther, it commences spinning and convulsing wildly to rip off bite-sized chunks.
Still, in the dark waters of Florida, some tempt the ancient reptiles. Men toss them fish and marshmallows and name them after dead governors. And once in a while, we are all reminded of the gravitas of nature.
Such was the case when a woman phoned 911 Tuesday from Captain Doug's Everglades Tours in Everglades City.
"Oh, Jesus Christ, it's my boat captain," the woman said. "Oh Jesus Lord Christ, it looks like he's lost his hand."
You get mugged in Manhattan. You lose your loot in Vegas. In Florida, the foolish and unlucky wear empty sleeves.
Captain Wallace "Wally" Weatherholt was reportedly in good spirits and recovering Thursday at Tampa General Hospital. Trappers found the guilty gator after the incident Tuesday, slayed him, splayed him, and found the captain's hand in reasonably good condition. But attempts to reattach the appendage have been unsuccessful.
"Please remember Wally and his family in your thoughts and prayers," read a statement from Captain Doug's Everglades Tours.
To add insult to injury, Weatherholt may face criminal charges. Feeding the beasts is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and up to a $500 fine. And several passengers aboard Weatherholt's airboat claimed that's what the captain was doing.
"He was splashing water and throwing fish to the alligator to get it to come up and kind of put on a little show," Brenda Lee, a tourist from Indiana, told WINK News in Fort Myers.
"I was sitting there in the seat thinking, is this thing really biting him or is he playing a game," Judy Chroniak-Hatt, also from Indiana, told NBC-2.
Lee took photos of the incident and turned her camera over to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators.
"Basically, they're just looking at the details surrounding how the bite occurred," said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the commission. "Feeding alligators is illegal."
Meanwhile, Captain Doug's is opening an account at a Collier County bank for those who wish to make donations for the benefit of the Weatherholt family. Information can be found at CaptainDougs.net.
Alligators have killed 22 people and an unknown number of pets since the FWC started keeping records in 1948. More than 300 people have been bitten.
The FWC receives an average of nearly 16,000 alligator-related complaints per year, most stemming from alligators that wander into backyard ponds or canals.
It happens so often on this peninsula of lakes and rivers that the government prints glossy brochures called A Guide to Living with Alligators.
Rule No. 6: Leave alligators alone.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.