GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Florida wildlife officials have now killed a nearly 12-foot alligator that swam within inches of a frightened paddleboarder in a popular state park last year. The encounter, which happened in September, was recorded on video that went viral.
The male alligator – 11 feet, 10 inches long – was shot in the head one evening near dusk last month by a trapper contracted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, according to agency records and a witness.
The alligator had been a popular curiosity among kayakers and paddleboarders in Silver Springs State Park, where it was often seen lounging in the sun along the banks of the Silver River. The park – home to alligators, large turtles, manatees and even a colony of monkeys – enforces a no-swimming rule.
Agency spokesperson Tammy Sapp confirmed that the alligator killed Feb. 22 was the same one seen in startling videos and photographs in the fall swimming near a paddleboarder who pushed it away with her paddle. In the videos, it hissed loudly at the paddleboarder and opened its mouth, baring its large teeth and a powerful jaw.
Wildlife experts said the alligator’s behavior suggested other people had been illegally feeding the animal, and it probably began associating paddlers with food.
"There was only one alligator of this size in the area," Sapp wrote in an email.
A paddler, Brady Toensing, 54, of Reddick, Florida, said in an interview that he saw a fishing boat pass him on the river the evening of Feb. 22 and heard a single gunshot. He later photographed the dead alligator in the boat at a nearby county boat ramp.
The state’s permit authorizing the kill was issued to Will Parker. Sapp, the wildlife agency spokesperson, confirmed Wednesday that Parker assigned the job to a colleague, Al Roberts, another licensed trapper. The meat and hide were sent to a local processing company.
The paddleboarder the alligator approached in September declined to discuss the animal’s death. Vicki Baker, 60, of Ocala said after her videos went viral she was harassed online relentlessly by people who mistakenly believed she had fed it. She said during an interview in September she did not want the alligator destroyed, despite its menacing behavior.
The death came as temperatures in North Central Florida began climbing and just ahead of mating season, when male alligators become far more active. Alligators begin breeding in early April, and females become more defensive of their environment to protect their eggs while they hatch.
After the paddleboard encounter in September, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and wildlife conservation commission launched formal investigations of the alligator. Since then, state officials said at least five times – including once as recently as Jan. 19, after the park ranger’s formal complaint – there were no updates in the case.
Last week, after Toensing provided photographs of the dead alligator to a reporter, the state turned over the permit authorizing the kill.
There is no specific threshold of complaints that must be filed before an alligator is killed, said Chad Weber, a spokesperson for the wildlife agency in Marion County. The state hires a trapper under the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program when it determines an alligator poses a threat to the public.
"There is no three-strikes-and-you’re-out system," Weber said. "In this case specifically, there was nothing out of the ordinary that caused the alligator to be harvested." He added: "The behavior it exhibited was becoming dangerous."