When Mark Johnson heard the news, he was speechless. The alligator that bit him Sunday, and nearly dragged him onto a Port St. Lucie canal, had been captured Wednesday.
But what surprised Johnson was the size of the gator. The licensed nuisance alligator trapper hired by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said it measured 8 feet 6 inches and weighed nearly 250 pounds. That’s more than Johnson, 61, weighs.
He knows better than anyone this wildlife vs. Florida man story could have had a very different ending.
“When he told me how big it was, I’ll admit, I teared up a little bit,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know it was that big.”
More: Florida man survives alligator attack, but with 65 stitches. Here’s how he got away.
He estimated it was about 7 feet, but the gator was behind him, clamped down on the back of his right knee. It’s hard to guess size in that position, he said.
“When your whole leg is in the jaws of a gator, you’re not thinking size, you’re thinking survival. I knew he was bigger than me,” he said. “Well, the realization hit me today at how lucky I was. He was 8 feet 6. It’s really hitting me now at how fortunate I am. You’re talking seconds before a gator that size begins his death roll, tearing flesh, you know. That eight to 10 seconds will be burned in my mind the rest of my life.”
The alligator has been humanely euthanized.
Life and death
Everything happened so fast, Johnson said. One minute he and his golden retriever Rex were enjoying a morning walk. The next, he’s lying on the wet grass, one foot at the water’s edge and the other leg seized in the jaws of an unprovoked aggressive alligator.
One’s life really does flash before one’s eyes, Johnson said. But Johnson remembered one technique from his days growing up in a small Central Florida town — go for the eyes.
He reached down and dug his index fingers into the gator’s eye sockets as hard as he could. Somewhat to his surprise, the gator let go.
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Johnson limped his way the 75 yards back to his back porch as blood trickled down his right leg from the 12 puncture wounds left behind by the gator. He knew it could have been way worse.
“If it went into its death roll, I could have lost a huge chunk of muscle out of my leg, or my leg, or it could have drug me into the water,” he said. “This was scary. I was cussing the gator out saying, ‘You’re not going to get me into the water.'”
Since 1948, FWC has tracked alligator bite statistics including fatalities. Through 2019, alligator bites are rare, but more frequent than shark bites.
- 25 fatalities
- 283 major bites
- 130 minor bites
- 413 total bites
At least three of the state’s 25 alligator fatalities occurred on the Treasure Coast.
- Phillip Rastrelli, 14, male, was killed while swimming across the Hidden River Canal off Bessie Creek in Martin County on Sept. 10, 1978 at noon. The alligator was an 11-foot healthy male.
- Robert Crespi, 11, male, was killed while swimming in a canal in St. Lucie County on Aug. 6, 1984 at 4:30 p.m. The alligator was 12′ 4″, aged and in poor health.
- Bradley Weidenhamer, 10, male, was killed while wading in the Loxahatchee River at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County on June 19, 1993. The alligator was an 11′ 4″ male.
Two other major attacks have occurred in the last month.
- Carsten Kieffer, 41, of Seminole County was bitten on the arm while alligator hunting Aug. 20 on Lake Jesup. It was severe enough the arm may need to be amputated.
- A 27-year-old woman in North Fort Myers was attacked Sept. 11 while doing yard work.
Johnson was treated for his wounds at St. Lucie Medical Center where he received about 60 stitches in his leg and another five on his left index finger where the gator’s eye socket cut him.
So far, he said there is no infection and everything is healing up fine.
“I’m just sore,” he said. “The biting pressure an alligator has is incredible. Everything where he bit down is bruised.”
Johnson said he doesn’t blame the alligator. It was just doing what alligators do.
“It’s important for people to understand how dangerous alligators are,” Johnson said. “If I had been a small child or pet, I wouldn’t have had a chance.”
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Johnson said it was important to keep his cool in order to survive.
“You cannot panic. I bass fish all the time, too. I’ll reach down and lift up the bass with my hand. I just got lucky.”
To report a nuisance alligator call FWC’s toll-free Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-392-4286. To learn more about living in Florida with alligators, go to MyFWC.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/alligator/facts.
Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer. Become a valued customer by subscribing to TCPalm. To interact with Ed, friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at [email protected]