Florida's rebounding crocodile population came face to face with civilization over the weekend when a dog chasing birds on the manicured greens of a Key Biscayne golf course was mauled and killed by one of the reclusive reptiles.
The dog's owner was walking the pit bull terrier mix, weighing between 20 and 25 pounds, off its leash Saturday near the fifth hole at the Crandon Park Golf Course, when it started chasing ducks and geese, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carol Lyn Parrish. When the dog followed the birds into a pond about 2:20 p.m., a crocodile estimated at five to seven feet long snatched it.
Signs posted in the area warn about the presence of the crocs and dogs are required to be leashed, Miami-Dade County park officials said.
Coastal golf course ponds have become favored habitats for the American crocodile, which nearly disappeared in the 1970s when the population dropped to a few hundred mostly living deep in the Everglades. Federal protections and monitoring programs, including the restoration of a key nesting area on Cape Sable, led to a dramatic rebound.
Scientists estimate there are now between 1,500 to 2,000 in the state, with about 200 living in and around Biscayne Bay, said University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti.
But while their numbers have climbed, good crocodile habitat has dwindled. American crocodiles can live in salt and freshwater, but prefer coastal areas. And in heavily developed South Florida, a golf course can often be the closest thing to natural habitat.
"Most of these ponds have a resident croc," Mazzotti said. "They're fresh water and free from wind and wave action. The crocs like to hang out. It's like a living room."
When the crocs are hungry, they can easily swim to a nearby beach to find fish and other food or lay nests, he said.
But attacks remain rare. Last year, two late-night swimmers who jumped into the Gables Waterway at 2 a.m. were bitten by a croc after they spooked it, becoming the first human attacks. Wildlife officials ordered the croc trapped and killed. In 2012, a 65-pound dog was killed in Key Largo.
Anyone living in Florida, near water, should know the risks of letting a dog run free near water, Mazzotti said.
"They have those laws for good reason," he said. "Crocs like to eat dogs."
They like them so much that Mazzotti said some trappers will bark to attract alligators and crocs. The fact that few attacks have occurred indicates how low the risk remains, he said.
"They're at the [Deering Yacht & Country Club] golf course and ... all the places with ponds along Biscayne Bay," he said. "And every one of those golfers were in greater risk from driving to the golf course than from any animal present on the golf course."
Miami-Dade County officials said they have no plans to relocate or kill the croc.