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Residents try, but they can't save Little Al

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


SAFETY HARBOR -- Ten thousand times every year, people do the expected when a Florida alligator shows up where it shouldn't.

They retreat. They call for help. They react with fear.

But at the Sandal Cove condominium, where an alligator nicknamed Little Al was considered a little like family, residents took a decidedly different tack Thursday. They struggled for three hours to remove the reptile from the condo's pool before authorities were alerted.

When they failed, and the state sent a trapper to take Little Al away and destroy him, "there wasn't a dry eye," said Jane Hogan, a six-year resident who was preparing to take a swim when she saw Little Al's head bobbing in the water.

"He was going back and forth, enjoying himself to the hilt," said Jerry Clunan, 85, another resident. "I almost gave him a towel."

Little Al and a larger gator named Big Al have been fixtures at Sandal Cove for years, lying motionless in the grassy commons near a pond that feeds into neighboring Alligator Lake.

Neither animal had ever shown any aggression toward people. Residents strolled on a sidewalk within 10 feet of them without fear but also knew enough not to feed them, a well-meaning practice that only leads to trouble between humans and gators.

Al and Al spent the cooler months in the Sandal Cove pond, moving to the big lake for the summers.

Tourists came each year to gawk and take pictures. Hogan's two grandsons, now teenagers, grew up with them.

The gators were like pets, she said. "The feeling here is they were here first."

So when Little Al was discovered about 7 a.m. in the pool, residents considered it more a novelty than an emergency.

Another Al -- Al Eady, a maintenance man -- was called around 10 a.m.

Thus began an exhausting effort to extract the gator and get him to the pond before anyone called authorities.

"We liked him," Clunan said. "It was a sympathy kind of thing."

Using a 10-foot pole designed for rescuing swimmers, Eady tried 18 times to coax the gator toward the pool steps, but Little Al kept heading for the deep end.

After three hours, the gator was whipped and so was Eady, who almost gave up.

"He was so docile you could just put a noose around his head," Eady said. "He was like a puppy. I'm not being an idiot (animal) advocate. But you could see it."

Said Clunan: "We just wore him out. . . . I was within a foot of his jaws. I guess he could have torn my arms off."

Finally, Little Al came to rest on the steps of the pool and Eady pulled him out by the tail.

He and other residents who were assisting let the gator rest for 10 minutes, then tried to coax him back into the pond. By then, they had been told, someone had called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and a trapper was on his way.

They knew the gator would be killed if they didn't succeed.

Eady said he got Little Al to within 8 feet of the pond. "Just one little sprint and he would have been gone." But the gator was too tired.

The trapper arrived and challenged Eady, telling him what he did was illegal and asking how the gator got out of the pool.

Hard, unprintable words were exchanged, Eady said.

Then the trapper took Little Al away, leaving Eady and many of the residents upset.

The trapper, identified by the fish and wildlife commission as Joe Borelli of Clearwater, could not be reached for comment. The commission dispatched him after getting a call at noon Thursday, said Sharon Griffis, a duty officer at the commission's regional office in Lakeland.

State policy requires trappers to destroy the alligators they catch, said Griffis, adding that the people at Sandal Cove took a huge risk.

"Somebody could have been bitten," she said. Also, an alligator's mouth contains bacteria that is harmful to humans, she said.

Borelli was justified in taking the gator, Griffis said, as long as it was not in the pond.

"It is his time and his money," she said. A trapper's only compensation in this situation is the money he may get from selling a gator's meat and hide, Griffis said.

"Maybe it was time to see him go," said Hogan of Little Al. "But I'm sure going to miss him. . . . It was a bad day at Sandal Cove."

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