NAPLES, Fla. — Tony Aarts’ shot left his ball resting near the hole at Magnolia Landing Golf & Country Club in North Fort Myers.
He grabbed his putter and walked past a water hazard toward the green. Then he heard a splash.
Aarts assumed a golfer behind him hit without waiting for him to move Then he saw the alligator.
“He was coming right at me. Just, boom,” Aarts recalled of the February day in 2017.
The gator grabbed Aarts’ right foot and began pulling him into the water. Aarts dug his left foot into the mud, a futile attempt to slow the gator down.
He clubbed the gator in the head with his putter. No use.
The gator relented only after Aarts began bashing its eye. The golfer suffered only minor injuries to his foot.
“Funny, I felt no pain,” said Aarts, 77, a part-time Cape Coral resident from Ontario.
He was one of 12 people bitten by an alligator in Florida in 2017, and one of 410 people bitten since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began keeping track in 1948.
Twenty-five of those attacks were fatal.
And although alligator attacks are rare, this is the time of year when the reptiles are most active.
With the weather warming and their hormones hopping during mating season, which usually starts in April, alligators have been popping up all over Florida in recent weeks.
‘It could be a missing leg or worse.”
In mid-April, a hulking alligator walking down the sidewalk surprised drivers on a boulevard in Fort Myers. Video of the reptile’s lazy stroll went viral.
Days later, a woman reported of an alligator eating a dog near Fort Myers.
And on Wednesday, Florida alligator trapper Ray Simonsen was called to wrangle a 10-foot, 6-inch gator lounging on a road.
“It’s mating season, so there’s lots of activity,” said Simonsen, who goes by the name Ray the Trapper.
“The gators are on the move. It’s summertime. The waters are going to start to come up. They don’t have boundaries.”
Over the years, Simonsen said he’s captured alligators in all sorts of places: garages, pools, hot tubs, third-floor landings.
“I even captured an alligator in an elevator,” he said. “It was in a community in Naples. They had automatic doors on the entry, on the front lobby. A gator ventured in.”
Simonsen said he typically uses a rod and reel to catch gators. He urges people to stay back and keep quiet when trappers are stalking a gator. Trappers need to focus.
“We make one slip,” he said,” it could be a severe bite, it could be a broken bone, it could be a missing leg or worse.”
Most of the animals are killed, or harvested, and processed for their hides and meat. Alligators less than 4 feet long can be relocated.
The 10-foot, 300-pound alligator that attacked Aarts was eventually killed. It was one of more than 8,000 nuisance gators harvested in 2017, and one of about 215,000 harvested since 1977, according to state data.
The number of alligators harvested or relocated in Florida continues to rise, according to an analysis of five years of data from the state’s Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program.
The number of alligators either harvested or relocated jumped from 7,296 in 2014 to 8,929 in 2018, a 22% increase in five years, according to the analysis.
In fact, the number of gators harvested has been steadily increasing for decades, according to the data.
More people? More gator sightings
The increase likely has more to do with the rapid rise in the state’s human population than it does with the overall number of alligators, which has remained relatively steady at about 1.3 million, according to the wildlife commission.
With more people it’s easier for an alligator to become a nuisance.
“So whether we’re talking about snakes or alligators or whatever, if you have 1,000 people moving to an area per day, yeah, you’re going to have human-animal conflicts,” said Chris Gillette, a Fort Lauderdale-based wildlife biologist.
Over the past five years, trappers removed more alligators (3,020) from Palm Beach County than any other county in Florida. That’s far more than Broward (565) and Miami-Dade counties (248) to the south of Palm Beach, and Martin (749), St. Lucie (630) and Indian River counties (476) to its north.
“When I think of the Palm Beach area, I do think about a lot more golf courses and a lot more waterways,” said Gillette, speculating on why so many gators are caught there.
While alligators live in all 67 Florida counties, the regions with the most nuisance alligators generally are in Central Florida and along the Gulf Coast, the data shows.
The state’s wildlife commission declined multiple interview requests for this story and agency spokeswoman Tammy Sapp would only respond to questions submitted via email.
Simonsen, the Collier County alligator trapper, said he hasn’t noticed a decrease in gator activity and said he’s getting more emergency calls.
Over the past five years, May has been the busiest month for animal trappers, according to the analysis of state data.
From 2014 through 2018, trappers across the state harvested or relocated 6,359 alligators in May, according to state data. The next busiest months over the five-year period were April (5,914 alligators harvested or relocated) and June (5,682).
State hires 103 gator trappers
Simonsen is one of four alligator trappers in Collier County who work under contract with the wildlife commission. There is one alligator trapper in Lee County.
Statewide, the commission has 103 alligator trappers and is in the process of hiring a replacement trapper in Pinellas County.
Trappers receive a $30 stipend for each alligator captured and also get to keep the gators for their hides and meat, which become their primary source of compensation, according to the commission.
Occasionally nuisance alligators are sold alive to an animal farm, animal exhibit or zoo, the wildlife commission said. Simonsen said he works with two local alligator farms.
Alligators must be more than 4 feet long to be defined as a nuisance alligator, which typically are not relocated.
“Relocated alligators nearly always try to return to their capture site. In the process of returning, they can create problems for people or other alligators along the way,” Sapp, the commission spokeswoman, said in an email.