Friday, June 17, 2016

Gators At Disney World - You Have To Have Your Wits About You

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Disney Coronado Springs Resort where a gator was spotted last year and where we stayed in 2012.  I spotted a small (~3') gator while on a speed walk one morning. Me on the Animal Kingdom's 'Wild Africa Trek' where you can get up close and personal with reptiles.
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One of the many residents of the Animal Kingdom's 'Wild Africa Trek' - bigger than most of Disney's gators (about 14 feet).

The tragic death of 2-year old Lane Graves was the latest in a string of horrors to visit Orlando the past week. The sad thing is that it never should have happened. Had the family been more informed about the nature of wild gators in Florida (all 67 counties - in which up to 2 million gators may live) and proper signage had been posted-  little Lane might still be alive.

The first error of heartland folk coming to a Florida destination is thinking they can walk along a man-made lagoon (e.g. 'Seven Seas' near their Grand Floridian Disney Resort) at dusk like they would a lake at home. But see, the lakes at home don't have super predators like alligators lurking and which come out to feed near dusk.  Thus, the assumption that conditions for wading in or near a lake are not the same as in Nebraska where the Graves came from.

When we first moved to Miami in 1956, my dad took us to the Miami Serpentarium to get a quick education about gators and other reptiles . The whole of greater Miami is criss- crossed by canals and one thing you learn early - even if 10 years old - is that it's frightfully easy to run into a basking or hungry gator if you're not careful. So for two hours during that  early Spring visit we not only were introduced to Florida snakes and other reptiles like gators, but also exotic beasts like pythons, Nile crocodiles and King cobras being milked for their venom.  We left, all four brothers (the sister off shopping with Mom at Jordan Marsh) with a new respect for all reptiles - and also a yen to keep one or more as pets.  I fulfilled  that desire when I brought my pet gator 'Gonzo' to USF the first year there.

The other thing we learned is that Florida has been the ancestral home of the alligator for many centuries and they are found in every area of the state - not just the Everglades. (The Everglades National Park was also among the first trips we went on, to see gators in the wild). 

December, 1957, near Everglades National Park.

It is important to grasp, certainly for first timers in the state (and that includes visitors) there is no area - even resorts and their man-made lakes, lagoons- sequestered from the presence of gators. The fact that these bodies of water connect to canals, ensures gators can find a way in. Hence, the second misstep was Disney World not properly signing and alerting people to their presence - apart from posting 'No Swimming' signs. (Which people are always liable to disobey - or, regard wading as not the same as swimming).

According to a recent story out of The Orlando Sentinel:

"San Diego attorney David Hiden told the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday that last year he whisked his son to safety at Disney's Coronado Springs after a gator approached the boy playing in calf-deep water. Then Hiden saw a second gator nearby. Hiden said a hotel manager called one of them a "resident pet" and seemed unconcerned.San Diego attorney David Hiden told the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday that last year he whisked his son to safety at Disney's Coronado Springs after a gator approached the boy playing in calf-deep water. Then Hiden saw a second gator nearby. Hiden said a hotel manager called one of them a "resident pet" and seemed unconcerned."

"If I hadn't gone down there in another two seconds, my kid would have been killed," Hiden said.

The Coronado Springs is where we also stayed in 2012, and where I spotted a smallish (3 foot long) gator sunning himself one morning near lake side. These incidents and others show gators are not unheard of in the water areas of the Disney resorts so signs warning of their presence  - even if only a few- would have alerted people.

As the Sentinel piece goes on:

"Alfred Smith of Charleston, S.C., said he alerted a Grand Floridian employee Tuesday night after seeing a gator in the lagoon. He thinks it's the same one that attacked the boy less an hour later.
"I did warn another family of three that had small kids too close to the water and they along with another family took their children and left," Smith said via email.

A British couple told the Mirror newspaper that in April, a gator "lurched" out of the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of them at Polynesian Village Resort.

Current and former Disney employees say the resort does its best to manage the alligator population, but that's not always easy when so much wilderness lies nearby. Disney World consists of more than 40 square miles, much of it undeveloped land."

We also got this impression when we went on the 'Wild Africa Trek' - a Disney - managed safari-  at the time. We got to see all kinds of wild African habitat creatures up close, including lions, Zebras, hippos, and Nile crocs as well as gators. But what most impressed apart from the fauna was the immense amount of undeveloped land including swampy areas to which we had access even in a brief (2 hour)  foray.

According to  conservationist and television personality Jeff Corwin, also quoted in the piece:

"They're surrounded by quintessential alligator habitat, "The entire property is interconnected via canals so it is difficult to keep them out of the lakes,"

Former Disney executive Duncan Dickson also reportedly said in an email. "Gators are on all of the golf courses. The team attempts to relocate the gators to the uninhabited natural areas as best they can, but the gators don't understand the boundaries."

Well, no. Gators like most predators tend to go where there's food or a chance of snatching such, say a wayward raccoon or possum. Their prime mating and feeding season also coincides with maximum tourist season - from June through August. And as I noted, they most often lurk and hunt at night. My belief, as I told Janice, is that the gator had no clue - given their awful eyesight-  what it was even snatching. That is why the body wasn't eaten even partially. The beast realized once it had taken the toddler into the classic "death roll" (where the gator rotates with prey in its mouth over and over underwater) that it made the wrong choice. 

Of course, it also doesn't help when many visitors do encounter them, they try to toss them a used up burger or other food. This is just as dumb as tourists tossing 'whoppers' at bears and other wild life here in Colorado. Which then causes the bears to frequent burger joints looking for their next fast food hit.

 The same applies more or less to gators. (Though they usually prefer their food mobile)

The tragic toddler death at Disney World then came about because both sides made terribly wrong assumptions. The Graves family wrongly assumed it was just as safe as in Nebraska in walking along a lake at dusk. They were not.

Disney wrongly assumed the dozen or so odd gators (described as "resident pets" according to a desk clerk confronted by Mr. Hiden) in its lakes and lagoons would never trouble visitors and certainly not snatch a 2-year old and take him on a death roll, resulting in his drowning. 

It's just too bad the lessons have been learned too late to save that Nebraska kid's life.

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