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EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. -- An airboat captain whose hand was bitten off by an alligator Tuesday may have been feeding the big reptile, an illegal practice used by captains for generations to help give passengers an exciting show.
Wallace Weatherholt, an operator for Doug's Airboat Tours, was taking six passengers on a tour of the Everglades City area about 3:45 p.m. when the Weatherholt was bitten. The agency is investigating a claim that Weatherholt had been feeding the alligator, said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The alligator was trapped swiftly and its belly sliced to retrieve Weatherholt's hand for possible reattachment, she said.
For decades commercial airboat operators have taken tourists through the Everglades, providing a quick, if noisy, glimpse of sawgrass, tree islands, egrets and alligators. Dependent on tips for much of their income, some captains feed the alligators bread, fish or marshmallows to bring them thrillingly close to the tourists.
"In order for them to get a larger tip, they have a tendency to create a little excitement by enticing the alligators to get a little bit closer and make the experience a little bit more exciting,' said Jorge Pino, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's well-known to everyone, including law enforcement, that the practice exists. We do what we can to combat it."
To catch captains engaged in illegal feeding, state investigators conduct undercover operations, posing as tourists to nail any operators breaking the law. The violation is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.
But while they charge the captain, they rarely bring charges against the airboat company, even though investigators suspect the companies often know what's going on.
"It is very difficult for us to prove that they know that the captain of the vessel was engaged in this illegal activity," Pino said. "The tour boat operator in most cases has an agreement signed that they're not allowed to break the law and if they do it's on them, so the tour boat operator is absolved of responsibility."
A 2006 operation that resulted in several citations in Broward and Miami-Dade counties began when FWC officers taking airboat rides with their families witnessed feeding taking place. Undercover agents went in, obtained videotaped evidence and radioed for the arrests to take place immediately after the tours.
The agency engages in about six such operations a year in Broward, Collier and Miami-Dade counties, Pino said. There are fewer in Palm Beach County because it has fewer commercial operators.
At Everglades Holiday Park, where 14 airboats take passengers into the swampy South Florida wilderness, airboat concession manager Clint Bridges said feeding has occurred but that he takes steps to stop it.
"It's not a practice that's condoned," he said. "That's not to say some of my captains haven't gotten in trouble, unbeknownst to me. When your captain does it, I've taken action, depending on the situation."
He has fired or otherwise disciplined captains breaking the feeding law, he said. A good captain doesn't have to do it, he said.
"You don't have to feed them in order to find the gators," he said. "If you're good at giving a tour and you can make the tour entertaining and interesting, you don't have to do it. If you're good at this, you don't have to cut corners."
Randy Meeker, who operates airboat tours from U.S. 27 in Broward County and Tamiami Trail inMiami-Dade County, said he doesn't feed alligators and never has, because it's against the law and unnecessary on his extensive routes through the Everglades.
While he doesn't condone the practice, he said he understands the financial pressures on airboat captains to do what it takes to give their passengers a satisfying Everglades experience.
"You've only got 30 minutes," he said. "These people aren't paid that much and they make their living off tips."
But the practice is clearly dangerous. Even when bitten-off body parts can be recovered, reattaching them is extremely difficult.
A gator whips around as its jaws clamp down, crushing bones and tearing muscles, vessels and arteries that are often damaged beyond repair. Doctors may have up to six hours to potentially reattach a severed hand, said Dr. Frank Lomagistro, chief of surgery at Broward Health Medical Center. He is not Weatherholt's doctor but has treated an alligator bite victim who lost a thumb.
"The closing pressure of an alligator is tremendous," Lomagistro said. "This is a really difficult one. The acid that is in the stomach can start dissolving a lot of structures in the hand."
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