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    Small gator gives big scare to two kids

    The girl told her mother the alligator lunged so close "she felt his breath'' as she reached near the water.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 13, 2001

    EAST LAKE -- Along with the bait and hook, Jared Pabst's cast sent his whole fishing rod into the shallow water off a deck at John Chesnut Park on Lake Tarpon on Thursday afternoon.

    [Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
    Joyce Pabst, center, stands with her children, Jared, 8, and Kristen, 12, outside their home Thursday. Joyce Pabst says she's upset that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission won't do anything about the alligator that lunged at her children because of its small size.
    The rod hung up on some weeds, so the Clearwater 8-year-old lay down flat on the deck and reached. No go.

    His sister, Kristen, 12, lay down on the other side of the deck, stretched and grabbed the rod. The moment she began to pull the rod up, a 3 1/2-foot alligator lunged at her.

    The two children jumped back. Their mother, Joyce, checked their limbs. All were intact. The two children were fine, but shaken.

    How close did the alligator come?

    Kristen "says she felt his breath," Mrs. Pabst said.

    Believing the alligator to be dangerous, Joyce Pabst, 42, told a park ranger about the reptile. He told her he would notify the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but that agency probably would not do anything because the alligator was too small.

    Alligators must be at least 4 feet long before the agency will remove them, said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

    "They're really not much of a threat to people when they're that small," Morse said. "And they're not old enough to have developed bad habits from people feeding them."

    Morse wonders whether the alligator was chasing the bread balls the children were using as bait or was fleeing and appeared to have lunged.

    "It is not uncommon for things like that to happen," he said.

    With a million alligators in Florida and 15-million people, Morse said, interactions between the two species are inevitable. It is not unusual for the regional office of the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to get 75 to 100 calls a day about nuisance alligators.

    "Alligators have a real fear of people," Morse said, "and that allows us to live in peaceful co-existence."

    But when people feed alligators, they can lose that fear, Morse said. Still, there are several precautions people can take to reduce the risk of an attack, such as not allowing small children or small pets near the edge of a lake between dusk and dawn when alligators do most of their feeding. Swimming at night and swimming in heavily vegetated areas also are not good ideas, Morse said.

    Morse said anyone who has an encounter with an aggressive alligator should report it to the department by calling 1-800-282-8002.

    Mrs. Pabst was discouraged nothing would be done about the alligator that lunged at her daughter Thursday.

    "Obviously, the alligator is a nuisance," Mrs. Pabst said. "It was scary. It's also scary they won't do anything until they're (4 feet). This one is going to be a real problem when it gets bigger. . . . I think the big issue here is, don't feed them. They lose their fear of humans and then they have to be put down. I don't know how quickly they grow, but he's going to be a nuisance for a while."

    On Thursday, though, Mrs. Pabst's husband, Kelvin, had another concern. When she told him about their children's close encounter, his first question was whether the fishing pole survived. It did.

    -- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185.

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