The fatal attack on a 2-year-old boy by an alligator at Disney World last year raised questions: How many more gators prowled the waters of the internationally famous theme park, and did officials know about them?
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, more than 220 of the animals were removed from the location between May 2006 and August 2015. After that 10-year period, the number of captures and removals increased to more than 40 in a single year, June 15, 2015 to June 15, 2016. The child was killed June 14, 2016, and the following year removals more than doubled to 83.
A few days before young Lane Thomas Graves wandered into the white sand Seven Seas Lagoon where his family lounged, six alligators were hauled out of the theme park, four of them six feet or larger. Two days after an 18-hour search finally recovered the child’s remains, five alligators were removed from the property.
In a park where alligators are common, and a state where 1.3 million gators exist and nearly 16,000 were trapped and removed away from properties near humans in just two years, visitors spoke of the paucity of signs warning of their presence.
Disney officials, who responded to Lane’s death with profound remorse and erected more signs warning of unlikely encounters with wildlife, acknowledged that alligators exist on the property, but emphasized that the resort is enormous. Disney World is 40 square miles — roughly the size of San Francisco — and includes a 25,000 acre wilderness conservation area.
The number of alligators seized on the property where canals, lakes and lagoons intersect increased because the company strengthened a plan to keep them out. “In keeping with our strong commitment to safety, we continue to reinforce procedures related to reporting sightings and interactions with wildlife, and work closely with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove or relocate certain wildlife from our property,” said Jacquee Wahler, a spokeswoman.
“In the past year, we have reinforced procedures and training with our cast for reporting sightings and interactions with wildlife,” Wahler said, “and expanded our communication to guests on the presence of wildlife.”
Another factor contributes to relatively few alligator warning signs in watery areas throughout Florida, wildlife biologists have said: Unprovoked alligator attacks involving humans are rare in the Florida.
Lane’s parents, Melissa and Matt Graves, who leapt into the lagoon in a failed attempt to free his son from the alligator’s jaws, said shortly after the Lane’s death that they would not sue Disney World. It was deemed an accident.
Walt Disney World President George Kalogridis released a statement in which he vowed the organization would support the family. The Graveses launched the Lane Thomas Foundation, which works to find organ donors. A year after the death, Disney erected a lighthouse statue in the child’s honor, drawing on the foundation’s mission to turn its namesake into a “beacon of hope.”
“It is our hope that through the foundation we will be able to share with others the unimaginable love Lane etched in our hearts,” the family said in a statement.
Legal experts speculated that a lawsuit or court settlement could have been considerable, particularly if Disney officials understood that alligators were a constant presence in its park.
And that much is clear. The state wildlife commission’s spreadsheet shared with The Washington Post shows that four alligators were removed from Disney World in a single day in March last year. Ten days after that, March 14, seven were caught. On May 10, a little more than a month before the fatal attack, trappers removed six alligators from Disney World.
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts sought and received a Target Harvest Area permit from the Florida commission that allows it to “work directly with a designated FWC contracted nuisance alligator trapper to remove . . . alligators from the property.” That’s when the captures grew.
The commission removes alligators four feet and longer that pose a threat to people or pets “at no cost,” said a spokeswoman, Katie Purcell. Any trapper who removes the animal can keep it. “In most cases, the alligator is processed for its hide and meat,” Purcell said. Sometimes alligators are sold to a farm or zoo.
The state pays a $30 stipend for each catch, but the meat is how trappers earn money. In Florida, there are plenty of opportunities for an alligator trapper to earn a living. The wildlife commission’s spreadsheet lists golf courses, apartment complexes, community clubs, water ski outlets, schools and yacht clubs as just a few of the places where trappers have hauled away gators.
But partly due to its size, few locations compare to the world’s most famous park, whose name is sometimes stacked on the spreadsheet, because very often five alligators are pulled out in a single day.