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Attacks by gators are rare, but increasing

It is hard to imagine a sound more terrifying than the loud splash Lorri Binford heard Friday at the edge of a quiet Florida lake.

One moment her 3-year-old son Adam was picking water lilies. The next he was gone, pinned underwater in the jaws of a 350-pound alligator.

This week, as a Volusia County medical examiner confirmed that Adam was drowned by an alligator, state wildlife officials sought to reassure nervous Florida residents that such attacks are extremely rare.

And they are: In the last 25 years, only eight human deaths in Florida have been blamed on alligators. But Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission records also show that alligator attacks are becoming more common in a state where human and gator populations are both growing.

In the 1990s, reported alligator attacks in Florida have averaged 15 per year, double the annual average reported over the previous decade. Of the eight fatal attacks recorded since 1973, three occurred in the last four years.

Game commission spokesman Ron Sockman confirms that confrontations of various kinds between people and alligators appear to be increasing.

"Obviously there are more people in Florida," he said. "Alligators are being squeezed out of their habitat as developments increase."

To minimize the risk of an alligator bite, wildlife biologists advise people not to swim in waters that harbor large alligators, to be cautious in shoreline areas that provide vegetative cover _ and to never feed an alligator.

In about one-fifth of all bite cases, "area residents report previous feeding of the alligator," said Dennis David, the game commission's alligator program chief.

The commission amassed 223 reports of alligator attacks from 1972 through September 1996. Those records show that swimming in alligator-infested waters has been the most common cause, followed by trying to grab or feed an alligator and retrieving golf balls from ponds.

+ More than 60 swimmers have been bitten by Florida alligators. These attacks have occurred throughout the state in lakes, ponds, streams, canals and quarries. The game commission does not post warnings at individual water bodies because Florida's once-endangered alligator population is now believed to top 1-million, and they range everywhere.

+ Geographically, alligator attacks are most common along the southwest coast of Florida, where development has boomed in wetland areas west of the Everglades, and around the lakes of Central Florida.

Lee County leads Florida in alligator bites, followed by Pinellas, Polk, Pasco, Palm Beach, Sarasota, Collier and Lake counties. Pinellas ranks high partly because of three incidents involving workers bitten during gator shows at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

+ Very large alligators _ 9{ feet or longer _ have been involved in all but one of the eight known fatal attacks. Five of the victims were children. There also have been six attacks since 1957 listed as "unconfirmed" because the victims may have died before alligators got to them.

+ At least 38 people were bitten as they tried to handle, subdue or feed alligators. In some cases the alligator evidently attacked in self-defense. One man was bitten in the leg as he tried to a pull a 7-foot gator by the tail across a road in Fort Myers. Another was seriously wounded when he accidentally fell off a Citrus County dock onto a sleeping alligator.

People get attacked in strange ways.

T. D. Jackson was floating on a lake at a nighttime candlelight service in Ocala National Forest when an alligator surfaced and bit both his feet.

Madge Long was weeding her flower bed in Fort Myers when an alligator previously fed by people came up from behind and bit her hand.

Ellen Tyler was dunking a hanging plant into a canal behind her Palm Harbor home when an 11-foot alligator bit her hand.

Dennis Smith was bitten as he tried to remove an alligator caught in a sewage treatment plant intake pump in Sumter County. Virginia Poe was bitten while reading on the banks of the Wekiva River. Douglas Morris was bitten as he fished a basketball from a pond beside his Fort Myers home. Alexandrez and Maria Teixeira were bitten when they lost control of a bicycle at Everglades National Park and slipped into the water.

Clara Mackay was rinsing a T-shirt in Collier County waters when she lost one hand to an 8-foot alligator.

This litany of attacks notwithstanding, the game commission says people in Florida are more likely to be seriously hurt by wasps, bees, rabid mammals, snakes and sharks than alligators.

Statistically, there are only "about three alligator bites a year where people get stitches, broken bones or lose a finger," Dennis David said, "and about once every three years we have a fatality."

By comparison, lightning strikes kill about 10 people yearly in Florida.

Investigators have found no common denominator in fatal alligator attacks except the size of the animal.

"Alligators that are 10 or 11 feet long and weigh 350 pounds feed on birds and terrestrial small animals that use the lakeshore," David said. "A 3-year-old child or a small mammal splashing along the edge of the water are potential prey."

At Lake Ashby, where Adam Binford died, the 10{-foot predator may have been attracted by the splashing of the family dog. Adam was standing knee-deep in lily pads, a vegetative cover for alligators.

Even to an expert, these risks might not have been readily apparent.

"From what I saw of the site, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about having my 2{-year-old wander over to the edge," David said.

Tips to avoid gator attacks

+ Don't swim in waters inhabited by large alligators. If you're not familiar with a lake or stream, ask someone who is.

+ Never try to feed or pick up an alligator.

+ Don't swim in areas where aquatic vegetation provides cover for alligators.

+ Don't swim in freshwater at dusk or dawn, when alligators are most active.