By now, most of my readers heard about the tragic death of a 2-year-old boy who was grabbed by an alligator and pulled into the water at Walt Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort in Orlando.
The Nebraska toddler was wading in the Seven Seas Lagoon, a man-made body of water at the resort, at about 9:15 p.m. Tuesday while his parents sat nearby. A gator suddenly grabbed the boy pulling him in the water. The child’s father tried, but couldn’t pull his son to safety. Officials euthanized five alligators searching for the child. It is unclear if any of those was the one responsible for the boy’s death. Eighteen hours later, the child’s dead body was retrieved intact from the water about 15 yards from shore. It is presumed he drowned.
The property’s interconnected network of canals makes it difficult to keep gators out of the lakes. The resort has “Do not play or swim” signs posted near the 172-acre lake, but there were no signs warning guests about alligators in the lagoon. Nick Wiley, the executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Disney has a “very proactive program” of routinely removing alligators that pose a threat. But, was it enough? Did the company knowingly ignore a bigger problem?
An insider told The Wrap that several employees of Disney’s Polynesian Resort Village became concerned about guests feeding alligators over the past 14 months. According to reports, guests who stay at the most expensive rooms, called the Bora Bora Bungalows, have access to the wildlife at the Seven Seas Lagoon and commonly feed the alligators that swim in the massive body of water. This desensitized the gators to humans, as they began to associate guests with food. Other employees suggested a fence be erected to protect guests from gators that swim close to shore.
The incident reignited a spirited debate on social media over responsible parenting as many asked why the parents weren’t keeping a better watch over the toddler. Others wanted to know where were the lifeguards and why weren’t they keeping a better watch for gators? And, knowing alligators may be in the lagoon, why didn’t Disney do more to warn its guests?
While it is always easy to pass blame when tragedy happens, we need to put things in perspective. Then, look for way to prevent such tragedies from happening again. It is important to note that you are more likely to be struck by lightning than be seriously injured by an alligator. Since alligators are cold-blooded reptiles, their metabolic rate increases and decreases as water and air temperatures fluctuate. During cooler months, they are generally lethargic and slow to move. When the weather warms, alligators become active, feed more and beginning looking for new territories and mating; nesting season is June and July. It is during these times that alligator sightings are most prevalent.
Although Florida is teeming with more than a million gators, fatal alligator attacks are rare. In fact, only about a dozen people are bitten in a given year according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It’s rare that an alligator will come out of the water and go after a human being,” Ron Magill, a wildlife expert and communications director at Zoo Miami. “They usually nest close to the water. If you get near a nest, a female will come after you. Females are very protective.”
Still, alligators are wild animals and a few precautions on our part can help us co-exist safely. If you see an alligator, the best thing to do is leave it alone. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also offers these other safety tips.
Don’t feed alligators. Alligators are naturally afraid of people, but when feed they become bolder and learn to associate people with food. Also, do not feed ducks, turtles or any other animals inhabiting waters with alligators and do not throw fish scraps in the water. Although you are not intentionally feeding alligators, the end result can be the same.
Keep your distance. Although it is highly unlikely to be chased by an alligator, always keep a safe distance, typically at least 60 feet. If the alligator hisses or lunges at you, you are too close. While they may look slow, alligators are extremely powerful and can move with a startling burst of speed on land over short distances. Running in a straight line is the fastest way to get away; alligators also tire quickly.
Never disturb nests or small alligators. Some female alligators protect their young and may become aggressive if provoked.
Keep your pets away from alligators. Large alligators do not recognize the difference between domestic pets and wild food sources. When they are hungry, alligators act on their hunting instinct.
Do not swim in waters inhabited by alligators and do not allow children to play near the water’s edge, especially between dusk and dawn when alligators are more active. To an alligator, a splash is potentially an injured prey animal and they may act on instinct and attack. Or, a protective female may believe her young or eggs are threatened and take defensive action.
Do not corner alligators if participating in recreational activities, such as skiing, canoeing, kayaking, or even taking photographs. These behaviors can make them feel threatened, causing them to react defensively. Do not panic if an alligator slips off the bank into the water. It is highly unlikely that it is coming to attack you; it is simply trying to move to another location where it feels safer.
In the unusual event that you find yourself squaring off with a gator, wildlife experts say to run as fast as you can in a straight line. Alligators will typically chase a human only to defend their territory. If a gator grabs hold of you, smack the snout or jab the gator in the eyes. Whatever you do, don’t give up.
This family is left to mourn the loss of a two-year-old child. Disney will look to see what, if anything, needs to be done to keep its guests safe in a natural Florida environment. There have been precious few incidents at the Disney resort and in order for a company to reasonably protect against a risk, there has to be a reasonable risk to protect against. It certainly seems that “do not swim” signage is inadequate to warn against gator attacks, but gator attacks are so infrequent, what warning was necessary and would that warning have prevented this unique event? Disney has pledged to do what is necessary to protect its guests and we will (for now) take them at their word.
Will there be litigation? Is there liability against Disney? Those questions will be answered in the not too distant future. The threat of litigation helps keep us safe; many companies only institute safety measures after a tragedy and after they have been sued. Other institute safety measures because they fear litigation. Whatever the reason, the best possible solution, the one that keeps the most people safe, is the one that should always be implemented. We will be watching to see how this plays out. For now, let’s let this family and the Disney “family” mourn the loss of this beautiful toddler as the result of this horrific tragedy.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.