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In Florida, the alligators show their deadly fangs

MIAMI -- Todd Hardwick, a trapper, typically gets about four nuisance alligator calls each day, but he is getting 15 now, after a burst of three deadly gator attacks on people in a week.

''People are shook up," Hardwick said, just before capturing a 9-foot, 4-inch alligator yesterday in a lake north of Miami. ''It's like the citizens of Florida have declared war on alligators. People are really going crazy."

Before the most recent attacks, only 17 deaths had been recorded in Florida since 1948, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Although Florida has not had a concentration of deaths in so short a time, wildlife officials said there is no pattern to the attacks.

One victim was a jogger whose body was found in a canal in Broward County, on Florida's Atlantic Coast; one was snorkeling in a recreation area near Lake George, in the central part of the state; another was found in a canal about 20 miles north of St. Petersburg.

''These are unfortunate, unrelated coincidences," said a commission spokesman, Willie Puz. ''We still caution everyone: Pay attention to your surroundings. Pay attention to what's in the water.

''Alligators are predators and wild animals that should be treated with respect," Puz said.

Zack Auspitz, a resident, said the recent deaths have made him think twice about going into the water. The 12-year-old and his family frequently swam in the Miami-Dade County lake where Hardwick made his capture yesterday.

''I think my limitation will be that dock right now," said Auspitz, pointing to a wooden dock that used to serve as his diving platform. ''I just don't feel secure."

Government researchers estimate there are 1 million to 2 million alligators in Florida, but there have been only 351 recorded attacks on humans in 58 years.

Alligators generally shy away from people, and are far less aggressive than related species such as Nile crocodiles, said Kent Vliet, a zoology professor at the University of Florida who specializes in alligators.

''It's a rare event to have an attack. But there's a lot of wetlands in Florida, and there are a lot of alligators in Florida. People spend a lot of time in the water in Florida," Vliet said.

The three attacks were made at the peak of alligator mating season, when they want to mate. In South Florida, a lack of rainfall has dried up some wetlands, forcing more alligators to find new homes.

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