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Humans must learn gators live here too, officials say

Long before Disney World, eons before the first luxury hotel went up on Miami Beach, and millions of years before the first humans arrived, Florida was rich in wetlands that were prime habitat for alligators.

It still is.

Nonetheless, many in Florida still are reeling from a brutal reminder of that natural fact four days after a 10-year-old boy on an outing was killed by a 400-pound alligator.

The death of Bradley Weidenhamer in a state park just north of West Palm Beach was only the sixth alligator fatality in Florida since 1972, but in recent years there have been scores of injuries to humans and reports of pets eaten by a reptile that made a remarkable recovery after near-extinction in the late 1960s.

The state alligator population is estimated at more than 1-million _ roughly one for every 13 residents _ and each year in Florida there are calls for alligators to be eliminated from popular parks and even driven out of the state's vast canal system.

That, say state officials, will not happen.

"This is a tragedy; it's terrible," said Mark Glisson of the Florida Department of Natural Resources. "I'd do anything to get this kid back.

"But Florida is full of alligators, and the suggestion that we should remove them distresses me considerably. We don't want to punish the messenger in the form of the alligator. And the message is: The alligator lives here and we humans don't run the show."

Bradley died Saturday on the Loxahatchee River. He had been paddling along with a group of friends and Little League teammates when he stepped out of the boat he was sharing with his mother and father after it ran against a fallen tree.

He was standing in knee-deep water when an alligator more than 11 feet long grabbed him, pulled him under the water and clamped its jaws over the boy's head.

In a tearful news conference the day after the attack, Bradley's father, Gary Weidenhamer, described how he tried to wrest his son from the reptile's jaws. "I grabbed a foot and just pulled as hard as I could."

Weidenhamer said he struggled for about three minutes as others beat the alligator with their paddles. When his son was freed, he immediately administered CPR, without success.

Bradley was remembered Wednesday for his love of life and the outdoors at services attended by hundreds.

"He was always friendly to everybody," said his friend, Lisa Cericola, as she fought back tears. "He loved the outdoors. He was a nice kid."

Bradley was buried at Memory Gardens in Lake Worth.

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission officers killed the alligator, known to park personnel as Big John, hours after the attack.

Nothing, biologists say, will ever explain why that alligator attacked Bradley. In fact, the risks of being bitten by an alligator are slim. Florida's six deaths in 11 years are the only ones reported in the United States.

Despite the alarm caused by Saturday's attack, state biologist Dennis David and other wildlife experts said the balance between alligators and humans is about right.

The state operates a toll-free "nuisance alligator" hot line over which it receives 8,000 to 10,000 calls a year, leading to the capture and killing of about 4,000 alligators, David said.

"The remaining animals are pretty safe if you leave them alone. Use common sense."

_ Material from the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.