A man who lost part of his skull after an alligator bit him was found bloodied by an eight-year-old girl moments after the attack.
JC LaVerde, a firefighter and paramedic for Oldsmar Fire Rescue, had been swimming in Lake Thonotosassa, toward the northeast of Tampa, on August 3 when the alligator bit down on his face.
Nearly four months after the attack, LaVerde is still recovering. He has to wear a helmet to protect his brain since part of his skull was lost in the attack, WTHR reported.
“I had no idea that dinosaur was there,” LaVerde told the news outlet, recalling the incident. “I immediately felt scales, scales, scales and then teeth. I was inside its mouth. It’s whole mouth. I felt teeth. I felt his tongue.”
Florida is home to 1.3 million alligators. They can be found in all 67 counties of the state, and they usually lurk in swamps and wetlands across the state. Lake Thonotosassa is the largest natural lake in Hillsborough County.
Alligators for the most part are very timid and stay away from humans, herpetologist Laura Kojima, a postgraduate student at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, told Newsweek.
“About six alligator attacks a year occur in Florida and it is almost always due to the alligator being fed by a person and becoming accustomed to humans. Alligator biologists have a saying that a fed alligator is a dead alligator because those that do attack a human or get overly comfortable with humans will end up being euthanized,” Kojima said.
LaVerde’s firefighter and paramedic training helped him stay calm in the moments after the attack, WTHR reported. With blood dripping down his face he swam to shore and asked for help from eight-year-old Ella Wynn, who was the first person he came across.
“I didn’t want to scare her and I didn’t want to cause her any trauma because I knew, I realized what this would look like. I would look like a monster probably,” LaVerde told WTHR.
After Wynn got her mother, Alison, LaVerde was rushed to the hospital.
“I could see definitely half, like the upper portion of his skull was bit through. He was bleeding. It was coming down his face,” Alison Wynn told WTHR. “I was very worried that we weren’t going to get him help in time because he was losing a lot of blood.”
At the hospital, doctors found that his skull had been crushed by the alligator’s bite.
LaVerde underwent a six-hour surgery and made it out alive.
But part of his skull is still missing, meaning he has to wear a helmet to protect his brain.
In October doctors discovered that an infection had developed in his brain, meaning they had to reopen the skull once again.
LaVerde was sent home and is continuing to receive medicine through an IV.
What Causes an Alligator to Attack?
Despite Florida’s high number of alligators, attacks remain very rare. In September, a 77-year-old woman was attacked by a near eight-foot alligator in a Florida neighborhood.
“The feeding of an alligator tends to be the top reason alligators attack. Like other animals that are being fed in a pond or lake, alligators can get accustomed to humans and associate them with food and if a person is in their space they will get comfortable and can consider them food if they get too close,” Kojima said. “Additionally, chumming the water for fishing will attract alligators to an area. This is another form of feeding alligators and getting them used to humans to the point they won’t fear them.”
The herpetologist said the best way to prevent attacks is to not feed the reptiles, and to make sure others aren’t going out of their way to feed them.
“It is also crucial to be aware of your surroundings, particularly in a state like Florida where the population is abundant. Water bodies where alligators are present tend to have signs warning about the presence of alligators,” Kojima said.
LaVerde had been swimming in the lake in preparation for a race. He was being filmed by a drone at the time, which he had planned to upload online to show other athletes the course.
LaVerde however admits that he didn’t have many safety procedures in place, despite Lake Thonotosassa being home to many alligators.
But Kojima said that alligators can attack even if unprovoked.
“At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if an alligator that is frequently being fed sees a potential food object in the water they will go for it. And in the case of this attack it was the swimmer,” she said. “There is always the chance of a large overly ambitious alligator pursuing a swimmer because it can. Ultimately, these animals really want nothing to do with humans, however, it is always best to be super-aware of your surroundings and avoid swimming in areas where these creatures live.”
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