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Florida has gator problem as I’ve seen with my own kids’ near misses

Florida has a gator problem. The animals live and walk among us, close to us. They live in our lakes and reservoirs and swamps, and we set up our businesses and parks around them, as if nothing will ever happen.

It’s all fun and games until a toddler gets dragged away by a giant reptile. The little boy, taken Tuesday night about 9 p.m., had been splashing in no more than a foot of water at Disney’s luxe Floridian Resort and Spa. Authorities and witnesses say the 2-year-old’s parents tried to grab him away from the gator, but failed. The boy was found dead the next day, in six feet of murky water just 10 yards from where the gator attacked him.

Is this what it will take for Florida to wise up? People in this state act like alligators are a joke, from businesses that promote their presence as a selling point, to lackadaisical workers and parents who allow their babies to play in the wilds of Florida as if it’s not an endless reserve of danger.

I’ve lived here for six years, and in that time, my children have been perilously close to this little boy’s fate three times.

Just two months ago, we were visiting a neighborhood in Englewood with a beautiful lake and fountain. There was a small “Beware of Alligator” sign, but we didn’t see it until much too late. My twins were frolicking near the water’s edge, trying to entice a turtle to come out and play when an old man came rushing out of his home. “There’s gators in them waters!” he said to me in a clipped tone. “I’d get your kids out of there.”

Of course, I paid heed. After years of living in Florida, I’ve witnessed the real danger they present in a way most people overlook. Hours later, my family looked out over the lake, and there sat a 12-foot alligator, on the exact spot my children had been playing.

In Florida, the thought is, “You know you’re in a swamp; take care of your own.” Vacationers from Nebraska, however, couldn’t know that unspoken rule, particularly when the resort they were staying at advertised their white sandy beaches as relaxation and fun for families. Just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t. And now it has.

Disney is far from the only offender. The University of Florida regularly holds picnics on Lake Alice, waters filled with alligators. When my children were just 3 years old, we attended one of these picnics and let our babies paddle around in the swimming area of the lake, which had a lifeguard station and was clearly marked as swimming. We assumed there was netting or some other safety measure to protect us from the gators. There was not. “No one has been attacked here in 40 years,” was the nonchalant response we got when we asked about it. Needless to say, we took our children out.

Even daily pit stops like restaurants and little shops use gator presence to draw patrons, instead of deterring them. At a lakeside restaurant in Gainesville, where we frequently eat, young kids can go right up to the water’s edge. They often throw rocks at the alligators poking their heads out of the water to watch them. Their parents laugh.

They are wrong. Alligators are not a joke. They are not a novelty.

We need to heed our environment. Nearly 2 million alligators live here, and as rare as an attack may be, there is no reason to test fate. Without proper warnings, signage and reprimands, both the businesses and the state are complicit in the danger that can lead to death.

My husband and I know well the wilderness in which we reside, but tourists like Matt and Melissa Graves cannot be expected to understand the utter severity of these situations without firm guidance from those operating businesses near alligators in our state.

The parents aren’t at fault here. Florida is. Business owners are. Better safety measures need to be put into place when humans interact with wildlife, and all parents should be educated as to the very real danger in which they are placing their kids for what they think is a fun, cute experience. Lives are at stake, whether we want to believe it or not.

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