The snatching of a 2-year-old boy by an alligator from a beach at a Disney resort immediately raised questions about the animal’s behavior and the company’s accountability for the taking. Among them: How common are alligators in the inlet where the attack happened? Did Disney do enough to alleviate the problem or warn tourists about potential dangers? If not, could the resort be held legally liable for the toddler’s death?
There’s no doubt that alligators are a part of Florida’s landscape. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are approximately 1.3 million alligators in the state. The agency constantly warns visitors that Florida is packed with wildlife and that visitors should be aware. In addition, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection posts warning signs that alligators are present near designated swimming areas and walkways in state parks.
But Tuesday’s fatal attack took place along a well-tended beach by the man-made Seven Seas Lagoon, outside the upscale Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The boy, on vacation with his family from Nebraska, apparently had waded inches into the water when the alligator attacked. There were no other people in the water at the time, according to authorities. Signs posted near the lake warn against swimming in it, but the resort did not have any signs warning of alligators in the water. The company will “thoroughly review the situation for the future,” according to a Disney official.
Officials told reporters that, according to records, this was the first alligator attack at Disney World, ever. Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the agency works closely with the theme park to remove any “nuisance alligators,” or gators that are at least four feet in length and could pose a threat to people, pets or property. Nonetheless, Wiley didn’t know how often his agency actually removes pesky gators from the park, and he wasn’t able to provide an estimate for how many live in the waters on Disney property. A local sheriff said there had been no recent reports of any troublesome alligators in the area, but questions about their presence in the lake will be part of the ongoing investigation.
The Washington Post interviewed several individuals for the article and one of experts they spoke to was Kenneth Krysko, herpetology collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History and an expert on the state’s alligators and crocodiles. According to Mr. Krysko, there isn’t a waterway in Florida that doesn’t have an alligator in it. In addition, the mating season, which Krysko said just ended, is when most attacks occur. Big males become very territorial, and smaller males like the one suspected of taking the 2-year-old scatter to smaller bodies of water to feed. The hour of the attack, about 9 p.m., is an optimal time for feeding. “Yes, that is the time of day that alligators are coming out and feeding. People are at the surface, splashing around. It’s just so sad because you have a 2-year-old, which is very small. A four-to-six-foot alligator can view that as prey. An animal would have no problem getting such a child.”
Krysko wondered whether the alligator in Tuesday’s attack, unlike most, had no fear of humans. He suspects that visiting tourists might have been feeding it. “That’s the big problem. It loses its natural fear of humans when that happens. It goes up to humans, sees a child, and that’s the first thing it takes. That’s the sole reason why it’s illegal to feed an alligator in the wild.”
Floridians are extremely wary of alligators, for the most part. The danger is so ingrained in the general public that many small bodies of water lack posted warnings. “Early morning or late evening, you don’t go messing around on a shoreline with vegetation because of alligators,” Krysko said.
The deputy director of animal care at the Jacksonville Zoo said gators are very opportunistic. “Don’t assume that there’s not a gator in a body of water, whether it’s a water feature on a golf course or slow moving stream or a lake,” Dan Maloney said. “This time of the year, gators are going to be at their most active. They derive their energy from the sun, so reptiles are going to be more active when it’s warm out. They’re going to be a lot hungrier. They’re going to be a lot more reactive.”
But who is at fault will likely become a central question after the initial shock of the tragedy begins to fade.
Alan Sykes, a professor at Stanford Law School, was interviewed by the Washington Post on the legal issues that could potentially be an issue in this case. He said the Walt Disney Co. could be held liable for the incident if there is proof of negligence. “The hotel owes a duty of care to its customers to take reasonable measures to make the premises safe,” said Sykes, who stressed that he didn’t know all the details about the incident in Orlando. “That would include if there are hidden hazards in a lagoon on the hotel property.” He said a key question would be whether the resort had prior knowledge of alligators in the water near the hotel and what it had done to mitigate that issue, or at least adequately warn tourists of the potential dangers. “A simple ‘no swimming’ sign might be deemed insufficient,” he said. “If it gets litigated, it’s most likely a case about reasonable warning.”