Updated | There are countless alligators in Florida, wildlife experts say, but attacks such as the fatal one on a toddler at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando on Tuesday are rare.
“There are millions of people living really in the same places where there are millions of alligators,” says Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor who has published studies on alligators and crocodiles. “Alligators are not dangerous. They certainly have capability of inflicting harm on people, but under most circumstances that is simply something that’s not going to happen.”
Law enforcement officials announced Wednesday afternoon they had recovered the body of a 2-year-old boy dragged into the resort’s Seven Seas Lagoon by an alligator on Tuesday. The theme park said all of its five resort beaches and 10 recreational marinas were closed as the investigation continues.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon that his divers had located the remains of the toddler and recovered them at around 3:30 p.m. The body was found “completely intact,” Demings said.
The sheriff identified the toddler at Lane Graves of Elkhorn, Nebraska. The boy’s parents are Matt and Melissa Graves.
“We will go through the formality of making a formal identification, but there is no reason for us to believe that the body that was recovered is not that of Lane Graves,” Demings said. “Of course the family was distraught, but also I believe somewhat relieved.” He said they wanted to thank the public for the prayers.
Earlier on Wednesday, as the search continued, Demings had said at a press conference it was unlikely that the child would survive. “We are dealing with this family now, who there’s no question will lose a 2-year-old child,” Demings said. “It has been now about 15 hours since the child was taken into the water by the alligator, so we know that we are working on recovering the body of the child at this point.” The goal, Demings added, was “to try to bring some closure to the family by recovering their loved one.”
Demings said that a 911 caller reported the incident at around 9:16 p.m. Tuesday. The Graves family of five was on the beach of the man-made lake, near the park’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, and the boy was wading in the water when the alligator snatched him.
The parents tried to rescue the boy, Demings said, but were unsuccessful. A lifeguard was on duty, and there are signs that say “no swimming,” according to sheriff’s office officials. No other people were in the water at the time. The alligator is believed to be 4 to 7 feet long.
More than 50 law enforcement members responded, along with two marine units and search helicopters. Demings said that divers were in the water and law enforcement was using sonar equipment to locate the victim’s body.
“It certainly is not survivable at this point for him to be submerged for this period of time, so we know that this is a recovery effort,” Demings said prior to the recovery.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was also on the scene, with about a dozen officers and alligator trappers, and was investigating, Executive Director Nick Wiley said at Wednesday’s press conference prior to the recovery.
He added that Disney has full-time staff that observes the water and “an amazing program for keeping track of and monitoring and then addressing” alligators. “They routinely take out alligators in the lakes and the property at large.”
After the recovery, Wiley said at a press conference that FWC had removed five alligators from the lake since the incident. He added, “We're going to make certain that we have the alligator that was involved and remove it from the lake.”
According to FWC numbers, as of April there had been just one incident where a person was bitten by an alligator in Florida in 2016. There were nine in all of 2015, one of which was fatal, and 10 in 2014, none of which were fatal. Since 2006, until this April there had been five reported fatalities due to Florida alligator attacks, and since 1948, when the agency began keeping track, there had been 23. The FWC receives on average around 16,000 complaints each year related to alligators, and it issues alligator-hunting permits to help manage the population.
The University of Florida’s Mazzotti says that he is not familiar with the alligator population of the Seven Seas Lagoon, but that “any body of water of any size in Florida can potentially have alligators in them, and it is impossible even under the best vigilance to keep them out.”
“Usually Disney is pretty careful about either relocating or keeping a dangerous animal like that out of areas where the public would be immediately adjacent to,” says Michael Hutchins, a former long-time advisory board member for Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park and its Worldwide Conservation Fund, and now director of the Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign at the American Bird Conservancy. “In Florida, you have to be very careful because there are alligators on golf courses, there are alligators virtually everywhere.”
Hutchins says alligators often move between bodies of water undetected because of vegetation. “Disney has retained a tremendous amount of vegetation around their properties,” he says, “which is very good for wildlife conservation.”
He adds, “I’m sure that if Disney was aware of an alligator in those areas, where they might come into contact with the public, they would be watching it very carefully or potentially moving it out of the area.”
Disney World, which opened in 1971, has 250,000 visitors and employees on-site per day and is said to be the world’s most-visited vacation resort. It has 35 resort hotels and four theme parks.
Jacquee Wahler, the resort’s vice president for communications, said at one of the press conferences before the body was recovered, “Everyone here at the Walt Disney World Resort is devastated by this tragic accident. Our thoughts are with the family. We are helping the family and doing everything we can to assist law enforcement.”
The sheriff said he could not recall such an event happening at Disney World. But an alligator injured an 8-year-old boy at a campground at the park in 1986, according to reports from the time. The boy survived, and the alligator was put down.
It’s possible that the family of Tuesday’s victim will consider legal action. A lawsuit over an alligator attack settled in 2013 is believed to be the first successful claim against a private entity over an attack involving a wild gator. Prosecutors argued that the Fripp Island Golf and Beach Resort in South Carolina did not adequately warn visitors about alligators or take action to remove the animals. According to the lawsuit, an alligator emerged from a lagoon on the premises and grabbed a golfer, severing his arm.
In January, months after a boy was bit by a snake at Disney World, and his grandmother allegedly went into fatal cardiac arrest after seeing the snake bite, a family said it might sue the resort for the boy’s injuries and the wrongful death of the grandmother. The family’s attorney tells Newsweek the potential case is still in the “pre-suit” stage and nothing has been filed.
This week’s alligator incident marks the third tragedy for the Orlando area in five days, following the fatal shooting of The Voice singer Christina Grimmie last Friday and the Pulse nightclub massacre early Sunday that left 49 dead. It was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
On Tuesday, prior to the alligator incident, Disney announced it was donating $1 million to the OneOrlando Fund, which will assist people affected by the nightclub shooting.
This article has been updated to include information about the recovery of the alligator attack victim’s body, a separate alligator attack lawsuit and a possible lawsuit involving a snake bite at Disney World.
Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that Walt Disney World Resort has 250,000 visitors per day. It has 250,000 visitors and staff on-site per day.