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Monday, Dec 22, 2014
Crime & Courts

Woman bitten by alligator at Hillsborough park

BY JOSÉ PATIÑO GIRONA
Tribune staff

Published:   |   Updated: August 8, 2014 at 11:23 AM

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A woman vacationing from Ohio was attacked by an alligator this afternoon while canoeing on the Hillsborough River near a county park in Thonotosassa.

Andrea Reese, 20, was transported to Tampa General Hospital with non-life threatening injuries, said Baryl Martin, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman. She appeared to have been bitten on the thigh and calf, he said.

Martin said Reese and a friend, Morgan Fusselman, were vacationing here from Uniontown, Ohio, and rented a canoe from John Sargeant Park, which is on U.S. 301, east of Interstate 75. The two had paddled for about 45 minutes and were outside park boundaries at about 1:30 p.m. when Reese was bitten, he said.

Fish and Wildlife investigators were talking to Reese and Fusselman on Thursday afternoon, and Martin said officials don’t yet know the exact circumstances of how the incident happened. He said, though, that it appeared Reese was in the canoe at the time she was bitten.

“From all indications, all parts of her body were inside the canoe,’’ Martin said.

Martin said the woman didn’t appear to have any food in the canoe and had not been feeding the alligator.

“It’s very uncommon,’’ Martin said. “Most gator attacks are provoked attacks. This appears it’s an unprovoked attack.’’

Martin said a trapper would be sent to the area where the bite occurred and look for the alligator. If the alligator was found and trapped, it would be killed because it has demonstrated aggressive behavior, Martin said.

Michael Cole is manager of Canoe Escape, which rents canoes at the park. He said he was at a nearby store getting supplies when he got a call about the attack.

He raced back to the store and met arriving paramedics. Because he is a strong paddler and knew the area, he and three paramedics got into two canoes and headed toward where the bite had occurred.

After 20 minutes of paddling, the rescuers arrived at the scene, Cole said. Reese’s friend got into his canoe and one of the paramedics climbed into Reese’s canoe and began treating her.

The paramedic wrapped Reese’s thigh, which was bleeding, and they began paddling back to the park.

“Time was of the essence to get her back,’’ Cole said.

When they arrived at the launch site, paramedics put Reese in an ambulance and took her to the hospital.

Cole, 23, said he’s been with Canoe Escape for three years and manager since June. He said he was shocked an alligator would bite someone who was in a canoe.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this happening on the Hillsborough River,’’ Cole said.

The alligator could have attacked for several different reasons, said animal trapper Vernon Yates. The alligator could have been startled and acting in self-defense. Or it could have been a case of “mistaken identity,” where the gator was lunging for food or something else and instead latched onto the woman’s leg.

“Why he did it, we’ll probably never know,” he said.

Despite their scary reputation, Yates said, alligators are actually relatively docile. “They really just want to be left alone.”

A Tampa General Hospital spokesman said Reese was listed in good condition late Thursday afternoon. She was not giving interviews, the official said.

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