A Nebraska toddler snatched by an alligator from the edge of a lake at a Disney resort Tuesday was likely mistaken for prey at a time of night when the reptiles tend to actively feed, wildlife experts said.
“The worst thing you could do is wade into water, in any lake or pond in the state of Florida, at 9:20 in the evening, especially in the warmer months like now,” said wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski.
Two-year-old Lane Graves, who was vacationing with his parents Melissa and Matt and his two other siblings at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa near the Magic Kingdom, was wading near the edge of a man-made lake at that time on Tuesday when the gator — which witnesses said was between four and seven feet long — grabbed him.
Lane’s body was found “intact” Wednesday afternoon in the “murky water,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told reports Wednesday afternoon.
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“There is no question in my mind that the child was drowned by the alligator,” said Demings, who broke the terrible news to the family that their boy had been found at about 3:30 p.m. Demings said he believed the parents were “somewhat relieved” because now that the boy had been recovered they could “come to grips with what happened.”
“It was a tough message to deliver to them,” he said.
The family of five was lakeside when the boy was grabbed as he waded about a foot or two into the Seven Seas Lagoon, part of a large lake on the Disney World resort grounds. Posted signs warned against swimming but made no mention of alligators. After the attack, the boy’s father tried to rescue his son, and when he failed, he alerted a nearby lifeguard.
Fatal alligator attacks on humans are relatively rare, with only 23 on record since the 1940s. But in the spring and summer, when gators are most mobile in pursuit of food and breeding partners, non-fatal bites and human encounters increase. The chilling Disney attack echoed another in Florida more than two decades ago. In June 1993, a 10-year-old Lantana boy named Bradley Weidenhamer was grabbed an 11 1/2-footer as his group pulled canoes through knee-deep water at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County.
While alligators are normally concentrated during the dry season, this winter’s record rain has filled canals and ponds, allowing the reptiles to move more freely and into new hunting grounds.
Wasilewski, a South Florida biologist who has handled hundreds of crocs and alligators, was surprised that a relatively small seven-foot gator would attack a human and then not release it when the father fought to rescue his child.
“A seven-foot gator is not usually a size that can do something like this, but a 2-year-old child is a small human being and being in the water at that time is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Director Nick Wiley also said the tragedy was likely a case of mistaken identity, with the primitive alligator simply going after what it saw as small prey.
During search efforts, wildlife officers had trapped five other alligators in the Disney lake but did not believe any had carried out the attack. Wiley said Wednesday the officers will continue to look for the culprit gator.
“So although we have some sort of closure, our investigation is ongoing,” he said. “We are going to make certain that we have the alligator that was involved.”
When asked whether Disney was aware of alligators on the property, spokeswoman Jacquee Wahaler said posted signs warned “No Swimming.” Wahaler said Disney boats were among the first in the water to try a rescue. They were joined by police and wildlife agency boats. Wasilewski said the resort likely has staff to manage the gator population and keep track of sightings.
Demings told reporters Wednesday after being questioned about there being no warning signs: “Disney will look at all of their signage and protocols going forward.”
Florida is home to about a million alligators, which inhabit all 67 counties, state wildlife officials say. Alligators feed on whatever they find, preferring prey they can easily overpower.
They typically will not attack out of water, Wasilewski said, but they might lunge at prey a few feet from shore. They will patiently stalk unsuspecting prey, only attacking when close enough to grab a target with powerful jaws.
“They’re not going to come out of the water to chase the prey. They’re in typical ambush predator mode,” he said.
Since 1948, the state has recorded 383 attacks, with 23 deaths, according to FWC records. Last year, a 62-year-old snorkeler was killed at Blue Spring State Park near Orange City. It was the state’s first fatality since 2007, when a man fleeing police jumped into a retention pond near the Miccosukee Resort and Convention Center and was attacked by a nine-foot alligator.
The last time a toddler was attacked was in 2001 in Polk County when 2-year-old Alexandria Murphy wandered away from her fenced backyard near Lake Cannon in Polk County. A six-foot, six-inch alligator was removed and destroyed, according to state records.
In 1997, 3-year-old Adam Binford died after wandering beyond a roped-off swimming area at a county park near Lake Ashby in Volusia County to pick lily pads while walking his dog. An 11-foot alligator, possibly drawn by the dog, attacked him, pulling him underwater. Wildlife officials shot the alligator, which was still holding the boy’s body 20 hours later.
In the mid 2000s, the state experienced it’s worst string of lethal attacks with 12 people killed between 2001 and 2007, according to state records.
Minnesota residents John and Kim Aho, visiting Disney with their 12-year-old son Johnny, were stunned to hear what had happened to the child, whose name has not been released.
“We have been to Yellowstone and encountered grizzly bears, but this is just freaky,” John Aho said.
Kim Aho said their son is leery of the water around the park.
“He’s a little freaked out about the gator,” she said.
Orange County Sheriff Demings said there were no other recent reports of alligator attacks on the lake. However, Wasilewski said that with the rapid expansion of Orlando, wildlife officials need to take a look at management practices.
“Fifty years ago, that area was just wild land, and 50 years to an animal on the earth hundreds of millions of years is nothing,” he said. “They could be in the Everglades one day and behind your house the next day.”
This report is supplemented with material from The Associated Press.