ORLANDO, Fla. — The petite elderly woman flailed desperately in the canal behind her mobile home south of Leesburg.
A neighbor drinking his morning coffee and looking out his kitchen window Wednesday couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He quickly dialed 911, then jumped into the 4-foot-deep water to help the woman in distress.
Carol Hough, 84, had only one word to explain what happened to her: “Gator.” Her neighbor, Delmas Zickefoose, was shocked when he realized her arm was gone below the shoulder.
“I held her,” the 68-year-old Zickefoose said. “I just held her, telling her everything would be all right, that rescue was on the way.”
About nine hours later, state wildlife officials trapped and killed the alligator suspected of biting off Hough’s right arm. The 7-foot-5 male gator had taken bait near the canal where the attack occurred, said Lt. Joy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“The alligator was not at all afraid of humans,” Hill said. “It didn’t move when we were standing near it.”
Although a necropsy found no human body parts in the gator’s stomach, Hill said wildlife officials are comfortable it was the gator that bit Hough based on reports of its size, but that “it is impossible to say with 100 percent certainty.”
Hough remained in critical condition at Orlando Regional Medical Center.
No one knows why Hough was in the water or how long she had been in there before Zickefoose saw her. But several large gators regularly swim near their homes at Cypress Creek Mobile Home Park, which sits between lakes Harris and Denham off U.S. Highway 27.
Other neighbors said Hough had a history of being disoriented and might suffer from dementia. She had moved to Florida from Maine after her husband died. She asked for her late husband, Bob, after Zickefoose found her in the water at daybreak, around 7 a.m.
After rescuing her, he brought her to a sandy shoreline near his house, wrapping his arms around her tiny frame. Hough was calm and alert, despite the loss of her arm, and only her single utterance, “gator,” offered any clue as to what had happened.
“She was not upset, not screaming, as I held her,” he said. She said little, other than asking for her late husband.
While in the canal rescuing his neighbor, Zickefoose looked cautiously around them, remembering the large reptiles he has seen nearby. He didn’t see any but said he was ready to protect the two of them if any appeared.
A Lake County deputy sheriff arrived and saw a gator at the end of the canal. He tracked it to the adjacent Helena Run, where a wildlife officer tried to shoot it. The gator remained underwater for several hours until it was finally captured.
It’s not known what prompted the attack. Several gator attacks have occurred when people were with their pets, but Hough doesn’t have a pet.
Hill said the gator was too comfortable after it was caught, behaving as if it had been fed by humans in the past.
“It’s against the law, and it’s a very bad idea to feed a gator,” Hill said. “If an alligator gets used to being fed, they become less afraid of humans.”
From 2007 to 2011, 34 people were injured and one person killed in gator attacks, wildlife officials said. Since 1948, there have been 337 unprovoked gator attacks against humans, including 22 fatalities, according to state records.