Former Palmetto police dog bites back, survives alligator attack

PALMETTO -- Chris Leister was busy taking down a basketball hoop when he heard a tussle by the water behind his Palmetto home.

It was Tuesday afternoon and Arek, a retired Palmetto police dog and now Leister's pet, had been running around the yard with a toy and vanished behind a bush. It was out of character for Arek, who isn't a big fan of water like some dogs are.

"Next thing I know, I hear a yelp," said Leister, 50. "He comes from behind the bushes and he's got this big rip and tear on his paw."

An alligator had just bitten the right forearm of the 7-year-old Belgian Malinois. Though neighbors have described it to be around 9-foot, Tuesday was the first time Leister said he saw the alligator.

"They're speculating that the gator had probably just a mouth on the leg," said Leister, referring to trappers sent to his home to catch the alligator after he contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for help.

As he stood outside his home Wednesday afternoon, Leister recalled rushing Arek to Ellenton Animal Hospital where his wounds were treated and he was placed on antibiotics.

Restless, Arek paced around the yard with his bandaged forearm. He tilted his head toward Leister as the St. Petersburg police officer spoke. At one point, the retired police dog decided to roll around under the shade of a tree, his fur quickly catching dirt and blades of grass.

"You're only doing that 'cause you're going back in the house," Leister told Arek after the dog stopped. "I know it."

Attempts to catch the alligator were unsuccessful Wednesday afternoon, so Leister kept Arek on a leash. Whenever Arek tried to get too close to the water, he was pulled back.

Leister said he was told by trappers Arek must have bitten the alligator back because one that big would not have let go easily.

"I'd expect him to fight through everything," Leister said. "It's what they're trained to do, is fight through anything."

According to Dr. Dana Walstad, who treated Arek at the Ellenton Animal Hospital, the alligator may have seen the dog getting closer to the water.

"All in all, for a gator attack and what Chris described as the size of the gator. ... very lucky dog. It could have gone much worse," Walstad said, adding Arek sustained a 3-inch-wide tear on his forearm and minor tears farther down his leg. "We washed out the injuries because the gator mouth is so dirty and there's a lot of difficult bacteria to get rid of."

The veterinarian said it's breeding season for alligators.

"They are on the move right now, so a pond or a drainage ditch or a pond that is in a community or something that may not have gators yesterday. ... These guys are moving from place to place now looking for partners," he warned. "One day there may not be a gator there, and the next there is."

Arek, who was given to Leister when he left the Palmetto Police Department for a job at the St. Petersburg Police Department, worked alongside Leister for several years in Palmetto. Asked about their relationship, Leister described Arek as his best buddy.

"I'm glad he's here," he said. "He's a lucky dog."

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.

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