Death by Alligator

Floridians are in a panic over a sudden killing spree. Here's why the gators are attacking

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WILFREDO LEE / AP

A 9-foot, 4-inch alligator bares his teeth as he is captured Monday, May 15, 2006, in a lake behind some homes in North Miami Beach, Fla.

Annmarie Campbell lived in Tennessee, but she grew up in central Florida, and she had vacationed before in the rustic two-bedroom cabin on a creek in Florida's Ocala National Forest. Two weeks ago, she was there again with a few members of her extended family. That Sunday the aspiring artist, 23, slipped into the water to snorkel her way back to the cabin. A few minutes later, her former stepfather's wife Jackie Barrett left the sandbar where they had been sunning themselves and followed Campbell. The young woman was nowhere to be found. Barrett grabbed a kayak and paddled downstream in search of her. No luck. So Barrett headed back toward the cabin--to find her husband Mark and a family friend frantically gouging at the eyes of an 11 1/2-ft. alligator and prying at its jaws, firmly clamped on Campbell's upper body. By the time the creature finally let go, it was too late. Campbell was dead, with massive head trauma and lungs filled with water.

The incident would have been shocking by itself. But it was not the only one. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records an average of about seven alligator attacks every year, yet they are rarely fatal: since 1948, only 17 humans had been confirmed killed by the huge reptiles. But in the five days leading up to Campbell's death, two other women had been partly eaten by alligators. Three deadly assaults in the space of a week seemed like too much of a coincidence. Floridians, who tend to be casual about their state reptile, were suddenly hypervigilant to a danger that seemed to be lurking in every body of freshwater bigger than a bathtub. Calls to hotlines skyrocketed, and all over the state people were asking themselves what could possibly be going on.

The circumstances of each death offered no obvious clues. They happened in different parts of the state: Yovy Suarez Jimenez, 28, was killed in Sunrise, just north of Miami, and Judy Cooper, 43, was found 20 miles north of St. Petersburg. Although nobody witnessed either attack, authorities believe that Jimenez was sitting at the edge of a canal, dangling her feet in the water, when she was seized by an alligator and dragged in. And there is no reason to believe that Cooper was swimming.

In short, the unusual spate of fatal attacks may have been a ghastly coincidence--but that doesn't mean they were entirely random. According to wildlife experts, several factors may have recently upped the odds of alligator aggression. For one thing, this is the time of year when the reptiles emerge from cold-weather quiescence and enter the mating season. That makes them more territorial and more aggressive than normal. Beyond that, the state has been experiencing an extended drought over the past several years, shrinking the animals' natural habitat and forcing them to forage in areas where humans have created ponds, canals and swimming pools.

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