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An unprovoked alligator attack is extremely rare — but the reptile is unpredictable

An alligator floats in a pond during the second round of the Honda Classic golf tournament, on Feb. 24 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Lynne Sladky
An alligator floats in a pond during the second round of the Honda Classic golf tournament, on Feb. 24 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

Scott Hollingsworth was at his home in Daytona Beach on Saturday when he suddenly heard sounds outside his front door. When he opened the door, it was an alligator. It bit him on the leg. He went to the hospital to get surgery and is recovering.

In an interview with his local news station WESH, he said "I went outside, and didn't turn the light on. I went by. Got a step outside and something grabbed me on the leg [and] started shaking violently."

Hollingsworth did not respond to an interview request from NPR on Monday.

That's not the only recent incident with an alligator. Two weeks ago, another alligator killed an 85-year-old woman in Fort Pierce while she was trying to save her dog.

While these recent alligator attacks are frightening, it is still extremely rare to be attacked by an unprovoked alligator.

"To put it in perspective, when you go to the water's edge you are in much more danger of drowning than you are of being bitten by an alligator," says Frank Mazzotti, professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida. He's also part of their Croc Docs research team.

Mazzotti has been working with alligators for more than 40 years. People always ask him if he's ever felt unsafe around them.

"I feel like I am in much greater danger driving to my study site than when I get out to work on alligators."

And even if you do get bitten, Mazzotti says most bites aren't fatal.

Having a small pet with you makes an alligator more likely to attack you

"But if you are in the water and you're attacked by an alligator, the deeper the water is and the farther you are from shore, the more likely you are for the attack to be fatal"

Mazzotti has never heard of an alligator attack at someone's doorstep before Hollingsworth's incident. But he says there's some regularity to alligators leaning up on people's front doors. So what would cause them to act in such an odd way? Mazzotti can't say for sure.

But Mazzotti knows a few things that could make an alligator want to bite a human. He says you're more in danger if you are next to the water and behave in ways that further attract an alligator. For example, having a small pet with you or crouching down by the water's edge and using your hands to splash the water.

So what should you do if you live in a place like Florida and want to know how to defend yourself from an alligator attack?

When you run away, run in a straight line, not a zig-zag

"If you find yourself in the clutches of an alligator, many times the first thing that will happen is that the alligator will let you go," Mazzotti says. "Take advantage of that and run away. And do that in a straight line."

He adds to not weave back and forth while running away, because it gives the alligator more of an opportunity to grab you.

If you're in the water, your defense plan changes.

If you're in water, fight as if your life depends on it

"My words of advice are fight as if your life depends upon it. Because it does. Punch the alligator, poke it in the eyes, hit it in the head. If you've got a hand in its mouth, stick it down in its gullet. Do everything that you can to force the alligator to release you."

Even in the water, Mazzotti says that during attacks the alligator will frequently release the victim to reposition them. That is the opportunity to escape.

But he says the best method of survival is to avoid getting attacked to begin with.

"Anytime you are near the water, be extra careful. Be as careful as you would be to keep yourself from being drowned. Be aware of your surroundings. Always be alert. Don't behave in manners that will further attract an alligator."

The audio version of this story was edited by HJ Mai. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaity Kline
Kaity Kline is an Assistant Producer at Morning Edition and Up First. She started at NPR in 2019 as a Here & Now intern and has worked at nearly every NPR news magazine show since.