LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The number of alligators captured on Walt Disney World property has more than doubled since a toddler was killed by an alligator at the resort last year, state records show.
In the 15 months prior to the child's death, a state-contracted wildlife trapper removed 45 alligators from Disney property, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
At least 95 alligators were captured at the resort between the fatal June 2016 incident and September 2017, the most recently available records indicate.
Ten of those reptiles were removed in the week immediately following the toddler's death as state wildlife officials searched for the alligator responsible for the attack.
Earlier this year, FWC had to increase the number of alligators that could legally be taken on Disney property since the company was close to exceeding a state-imposed limit on removals, permit records show.
“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 in accordance with state regulations,” a Walt Disney World spokesperson said.
Alligator attack prompts changes at Disney
On the shore of Disney's manmade Seven Seas Lagoon, a sculpture of a gold and blue lighthouse pays tribute to Lane Thomas Graves, the 2-year-old who lost his life on June 14, 2016.
The lighthouse also serves to spread awareness of the Lane Thomas Foundation, a nonprofit organization established by Graves' parents to support families of children in need of organ transplants.
Graves was building sandcastles on the beach outside Disney's Grand Floridian Resort when an alligator lunged out of the lagoon as the toddler bent over to scoop up water with a bucket, a state investigation concluded. Authorities recovered the child's body the following afternoon.
Days after Graves' death, Disney began installing fences and piles of large rocks along many of the resort's lakes to prevent visitors from getting close to the water.
The company also posted signs warning guests about alligators and snakes and urging them not to feed wildlife, while reinforcing employee training regarding wildlife sightings.
As newly released records show, Disney officials also increased the number of nuisance alligators they authorized trappers to remove from the company’s 47-square-mile property.
Disney’s alligator harvest permit
To address complaints about potentially dangerous alligators, FWC administers the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, or SNAP.
If an alligator at least 4 feet in length is believed to pose a threat to people, pets or property, the agency issues a permit to a state-contracted alligator trapper.
In 2016, more than 8,000 alligators were captured statewide under the program.
Although some of those reptiles are sold alive to alligator farms, animal exhibits or zoos, most nuisance alligators are euthanized.
FWC does not relocate nuisance alligators because the reptiles often try to return to their capture site, and remote locations generally have healthy alligator populations, according to the agency.
Trappers, including those who work on Disney property, receive a $30 stipend from FWC for each nuisance alligator captured. Many sell the alligators’ meat and hide to make additional money.
FWC has granted Walt Disney World a special permit that allows the company to contact a trapper directly to remove nuisance alligators. FWC must later be notified of the number and sizes of alligators captured.
Under Disney’s Targeted Harvest Area permit, which was originally issued in 2009, a trapper was allowed to capture 300 alligators before the permit expired in April 2019.
By March 2017, records show, at least 250 alligators had already been removed from Disney property under the permit.
That month, FWC issued Disney a revised permit that authorizes the company to remove up to 400 alligators through April 2023.
Since March, another 39 alligators have been captured on Disney property, records show.
“If the number of alligators removed were to approach what is outlined in the THA, it would trigger a review of the THA that could result in issuing another permit if needed,” said FWC spokesperson Tammy Sapp.
Longtime Central Florida alligator trapper Tracy Howell is the “alligator control agent” authorized by FWC to remove alligators from Disney property, the permit shows.
Howell also operates Florida Alligator Processing Inc., a meat processing facility in Plant City, state records indicate.
Howell declined an interview with News 6. Last year, the trapper told Reuters that alligators are often removed from Disney property alive and killed later, although his team is allowed to euthanize the reptiles immediately if team members feel threatened.
The average size of alligators captured at Disney since the fatal attack is about 6 feet long, state records show.
On Sept. 5, trappers caught an 11-foot-long alligator at an unspecified location at the resort. Walt Disney World officials did not provide details to News 6 about the capture.
Disney visitors have mixed opinions about alligator removals
According to FWC, the removal of nuisance alligators does not have a significant impact on Florida’s population of about 1.3 million alligators.
“The safety of a child is important,” said Massimo Piroli as held his young son outside Walt Disney World.
Piroli appreciates Disney legally removing nuisance alligators if it means protecting out-of-state visitors such as his family from Connecticut who may not be familiar with the potentially dangerous wildlife.
“I think you’ve got people coming in from the Midwest and places where alligators don’t exist,” Piroli said. “There are no alligators up in Connecticut.”
But St. Petersburg resident Becky Jolley questions the need to remove even more alligators from Disney property, especially after the company installed fences and warning signs to keep visitors away from the reptiles’ habitats.
“It’s Florida. If there’s water, there’s going to be gators,” said Jolley, a longtime Disney World annual passholder who recalled seeing alligators at the resort on only a few occasions. “I can’t imagine that people are in that much danger that they need to be dragging them out and killing them.”