The male alligator – 11 feet, 10 inches long – was shot in the head one evening near dusk last month by a trapper contracted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, according to agency records and a witness.
The alligator had been a popular curiosity among kayakers and paddleboarders in Silver Springs State Park near Ocala, Florida, where it was often seen lounging in the sun along the banks of the Silver River. The park – home to alligators, large turtles, manatees and even a colony of monkeys – enforces a no-swimming rule.
Wildlife experts said the alligator's behavior suggested other people had been illegally feeding the animal, and it probably began associating paddlers with food.
"There was only one alligator of this size in the area," Sapp wrote in an email.
A paddler, Brady Toensing, 54, of Reddick, Florida, said in an interview that he saw a fishing boat pass him on the river the evening of Feb. 22 and heard a single gunshot. He later photographed the state's licensed trapper, Will Parker, at a nearby county boat ramp with the dead alligator in his boat.
Parker, identified on the state's permit authorizing the kill, said he would not discuss the incident unless he were paid. The meat and hide were sent to a local processing company.
Toensing, a nationally renowned Republican lawyer and activist, said a young boy asked Parker why the alligator couldn't be saved.
“He said it’s a shame and asked why they couldn’t have just captured it and relocated it,” Toensing said. “The guy said, ‘Would you wanna ride in the boat with this monster?’”
Toensing said he also believed the alligator was doomed by people illegally feeding it.
“It is an amazing animal," he said. "It was sad, but these guys are just doing their jobs. This alligator’s fate was set when people decided to start feeding it.”
The paddleboarder the alligator approached in September also declined to discuss the animal's death. Vicki Baker, 60, of Ocala said after her videos went viral, she was harassed online relentlessly by people who mistakenly believed she had fed it. She said during an interview in September she did not want the alligator destroyed, despite its menacing behavior.
It wasn't clear why government officials took more than five months to act. The permit authorizing the kill, obtained under Florida's public records law, said a state park ranger, Brooke Doran, filed a formal complaint Jan. 11 about the alligator and indicated it was a threat to people, pets and property.
The death came as temperatures in north-central Florida began climbing and just ahead of mating season, when male alligators become far more active. Alligators begin breeding in early April, and females become more defensive of their environment to protect their eggs while they hatch.
After the paddleboard encounter in September, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and wildlife conservation commission launched formal investigations of the alligator. Since then, state officials said at least five times – including once as recently as Jan. 19, after the park ranger's formal complaint – there were no updates in the case.
Last week, after Toensing provided photographs of the dead alligator to a reporter, the state turned over the permit authorizing the kill.
There is no specific threshold of complaints that must be filed before an alligator is killed, said Chad Weber, a spokesperson for the wildlife agency in Marion County. The state hires a trapper under the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program when it determines an alligator poses a threat to the public.
“There is no three-strikes-and-you're-out system,” Weber said. “In this case specifically, there was nothing out of the ordinary that caused the alligator to be harvested." He added: "The behavior it exhibited was becoming dangerous."
Toensing, who saw the alligator on the boat ramp, is son of Victoria Toensing, a former senior Justice Department official who worked with Rudy Giuliani in support of former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]