LEE COUNTY, Fla. – Richard Wilbanks had gotten a 2-month-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel just a few days before his encounter with a small gator.
The dramatic rescue has since gone viral for Wilbanks’ heroic actions while saving his pup named Gunner.
“I turned around, I heard him yelp and I turned around and I saw the alligator swimming off with him and I just jumped in the water,” Wilbanks, a 74-year-old resident of Lee County, said. “(I) caught up with the alligator and grabbed him and wrestled him up to the bank and then had to pry his mouth open to get Gunner out.”
The images of the dramatic rescue were captured Oct. 25 by a Florida Wildlife Federation camera.
“They called me up and they told me that, ‘You won’t believe what we have on our camera’ and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, what is it?’ I thought maybe I was running around nude out in the backyard or something,” Wilbanks jokingly said.
Meredith Budd, regional policy director with Florida Wildlife Federation, said Wilbanks volunteers with an educational program called Sharing the Landscape. It’s a campaign part of the Stop Foundation with a mission to teach about co-existing with wild animals.
“I think the ultimate message is that we need to respect wildlife and take every necessary precaution, especially when you do live at that interface where your residential community is and there is wildland where wild animals are roaming,” Budd said.
FWF placed 17 cameras around three different residential communities where the Wilbanks live, which is adjacent to conservation land in Lee County.
“We placed these cameras in volunteer properties in order to document what animals are we sharing our landscape with, what animals we may encounter and how can we learn to reduce potential conflict like we saw in the video,” Budd said.
The nonprofit organization hopes the video will serve as a learning experience for people to maintain their distance from wild animals and make sure to stay safe.
“Every precaution necessary, that includes in this instance, keeping your dog on a leash, having pets and children and adults for that matter not lingering at the end of retention ponds. Those are areas alligators are known to occupy,” Budd said.
When asked if Gunner, the puppy saved by his human, was on a leash, Wilbanks said he had gotten Gunner just a few days prior to the gator attack and the leash and collar he had bought were still too big for Gunner to wear.
“Unfortunately, Gunner was not on a leash. I had just gotten Gunner. I had not had him probably a week,” Wilbanks said.
And another interesting detail about the images was seeing Wilbanks struggle with the 2-foot gator while he kept a tight grip on to his cigar in his mouth.
“You know, I didn’t even realize that until people started making that comment after they saw the video. I don’t know what happened to it. I probably wish I kept it as a souvenir, I guess,” he said. “You know, but I would do it all over again; just look at this face. He’s so loving, he’s so gentle--wants to meet everybody and everything except alligators from now on.”
Gunner suffered a small puncture and was left at the hospital for two days. Wilbanks suffered some scrapes and scratches. All parties involved are doing fine.
“The alligator is still in the pond. It’s just fine. Gunner is fine, I’m fine and so am I,” Wilbanks said.