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Fatal Alligator Attacks in Florida have Residents Worried

Florida wildlife officials are warning residents to avoid areas where alligators are on the prowl. Three women have been killed by alligators recently, a disturbingly high number compared to the rate in previous years. VOA's Melinda Smith looks at some of the reasons why attacks have increased.

The alligator's normal habitat is the dense vegetation of Florida's marshes, rivers and lakes.

But in recent decades, much of that wetland has been used to accommodate the state's boom in housing and commercial construction. With more and more people moving to Florida, alligators have less room to roam.

There are two other factors at hand: this is mating season and the state's drought has forced many of these reptiles to travel farther in their search for food.

University of Florida zoologist Kent Vliet says the posted wildlife warnings should be taken seriously. "You've got to be especially cautious anytime you're near water in Florida, and you have your dog with you, because alligators really key in to those things very rapidly and they get to thinking about feeding and they'll move in close and it's just a dangerous situation."

Twenty-three year old Annemarie Campbell was snorkeling in a placid creek when an alligator believed to be at least two and a half meters long killed her. As hunters searched for the gator, one state wildlife official expressed frustration the animal had not yet been captured.

A few days earlier trappers caught and killed another alligator believed responsible for the death of 28-year-old Yovy Suarez Jimenez. She may have been jogging on a canal bank and dragged into the water.

The body of a third woman was discovered in a canal near the city of St. Petersburg. Her death was also blamed on an alligator. Seventy-four-year-old Connie Gittles could have been the state's fourth fatality, if she hadn't grabbed her garden hose when an alligator nipped her on the leg:

Recalling the event, Ms. Gittles says, "...and I got him right on the nose. One whack. I don't know where he went, but he was just gone."

Alligators are naturally predatory and can grow to much as four meters long. They often attack pets and livestock. This year's three fatalities bring the human death toll to 20 in the past 57 years.