Alligator sightings on Fripp Island a daily occurence, residents say

October 9, 2009 

The alligator that attacked a 77-year-old man on Thursday. The alligator was captured, killed and cut open to recover the man's arm in hope of doctors being able to reattach the limb. The man, the father of a Fripp Island resident, was attacked as he knelt to pick up his golf ball.

SPECIAL TO THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

For as long as Kerry Friesen and her husband, Rick, have lived on Fripp Island, alligators have been a regular sight near lagoons on the island's two private golf courses.

"I've been within four or five feet of an alligator when teeing off without any difficulty," said Friesen, who works as a real estate agent on the island. "You ignore them and they ignore you. If it's been raining for a few days and it's sunny, you'll see them up on the banks sunning themselves.

"They're pretty docile for the most part."

But one of the alligators on Fripp's Ocean Creek Course -- a 10-foot, 400-pounder -- turned aggressive Thursday when a 77-year-old man, the father of a Fripp Island property owner, knelt to pick up his ball and was attacked by the animal.

The alligator clamped down on the man's arm and dragged him into a nearby pond. The man lost the arm below the elbow in the struggle. Wildlife officials worked quickly to capture and kill the alligator, before cutting the reptile open to remove the arm from its digestive tract.

The victim, whose name has not been released, and his arm were flown to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, where doctors tried to re-attach the limb.

The hospital declined to release information on the victim's condition Friday. Fripp Island officials say they were told by the man's son Friday that his father was in stable condition. It is unclear whether doctors were able to reattach his arm.

Friesen was playing just three holes behind the victim's group."We heard that a guy had been bit by an alligator and that his arm was injured," said Friesen, who was approaching the eighth tee box when she noticed a commotion. "We heard all of the sirens and saw all of the people trying to catch the alligator, but I don't know that we understood how seriously he was injured."

'Alligator Attack'

Dave Corneliussen, owner of Tracks Wildlife Control in Beaufort, was at home when he got the call from Fripp Island about an alligator attack, two words he is not used to hearing in sequence.

"I respond to a lot of nuisance alligators, but alligator attacks are very, very rare," Corneliussen said Friday. "I had been out to Fripp Island plenty of times. Everybody knows there are alligators out there."

Corneliussen arrived at the 11th hole to find that the alligator hadn't strayed far.

"He was still hanging around," he said. "There was a sense of urgency because they wanted to recover the arm."

Using a snag line -- a device consisting of a long pole, a rope and a hook -- Corneliussen snared the alligator and wrestled it to the bank of a nearby lagoon. There, he shot it with a .22-caliber rifle. Corneliussen and Fripp Island Fire Chief Joshua Horton worked quickly to cut the alligator open and retrieve the severed arm.

"Their skin is pretty thick, so it was tough to get through and there were some membranes and stuff but once we got to the stomach, we could feel the arm in there," Corneliussen said.

Once retrieved, the arm was wrapped in ice by paramedics from Beaufort County EMS and flown to Charleston.

Regulated killing

Corneliussen said he still isn't sure what might have prompted Thursday's attack.

The carcass of the alligator was taken by staffers from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the killing of alligators across the state. DNR estimates that100,000 to 200,000 American alligators live along South Carolina's coast.

Nuisance alligators can be killed only if landowners apply for permits and are issued tags by DNRThe landowner then can remove the alligator themselves or hire companies like Tracks Wildlife Control. The number of tags the state will issue a landowner varying depending on the size of the property.

The program requires that the alligators be killed.

American alligators were removed from the list of federal endangered species in 1987. South Carolina began an alligator hunting season last year. The 2009 season ended Oct. 3.

Fripp Island has had three alligator permits for the 2009 calendar year, said Kate Hines, general manager of the Fripp Island Property Owner's Association. Hines was unsure of the exact number of alligators living on Fripp Island.

"People are asking if we intend to go into the ponds and get rid every 10-foot alligator, and we can't do that," Hines said. "To take the alligator, we would have to prove to the state that it's an aggressive alligator."

Hines said Thursday's attack is a tragic reminder of the dangers sometimes posed by the island's alligators, particularly if they are fed by humans.

"People need to be very careful," Hines said. "Alligators have been here for a long time and people aren't always aware of them. You need to watch your step. Tourists and visitors can come here and think that it's OK to feed the alligator marshmallows or some bread, but that's very dangerous. The alligator may come to associate people with food."

Beaufort amateur golfer Mark Anderson has played the Ocean Creek course more than 20 times and said he won't play a ball close to one of the course's lagoons or other water hazards.

"I think every time I've been out there I've seen at least one (alligator) in every pond," Anderson said. "I'll take a drop or use my club to get a ball. I'm certainly not going to be coming face-to-face with anything. I don't do that anywhere but especially not at a place like Fripp that has so many alligators."

Fripp Island officials say the alligator that attacked the man Thursday might have been fed by humans in the past.

Hines said Fripp Island's staff had not been alerted to problems with alligators on the island.

Residents living in homes near the 11th hole contacted Friday said they had not heard or seen anything leading up to or following the attack Thursday.

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