Florida Disney alligator saw boy as prey, report says

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Story highlights

  • Six aligators have been killed, but authorities are unable to make a positive DNA match, report says
  • The boy who was killed and his family did nothing to provoke the alligator, report says

(CNN)A 2-year-old Nebraska boy killed by an alligator at a Walt Disney World hotel in June died due to a series of events that would have been difficult to predict, according to a report the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released Monday.

The report detailed why it considered the attack a predatory event rather than one provoked by human behavior, and the possible reasons for it. But it did not address what role Walt Disney World's policies or lack of them possibly played in the death of Lane Thomas Graves.
    Two guests said they warned Disney employees there was an alligator near the beach where the Graves family had gathered to watch a movie, according to the report. It, however, did not determine whether the employees acted on the information.
    Authorities said they are confident they caught the offending alligator but acknowledge they are not sure. In the end, the findings of the report indicate the victim was an unfortunate match for a specific predator seeking prey, and his family had no warning the child was in any potential danger.

    Report details events before the attack

    • Lane Thomas Graves, 2, weighed 30 pounds and stood 37 inches tall. He and other children were collecting water in buckets from the lake to make sandcastles between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. on June 15. The water they were standing in was ankle deep.
    • Matt and Melissa Graves had brought their children to the beach around 8:30 p.m to watch the movie "Zootopia."
    • The attack happened at dusk, which the report noted was prime alligator hunting time. The report also indicated that during the warm summer months the gator's drive for food would be stronger.
    • The man-made Seven Seas Lagoon is not unsuitable habitat for alligators, but nor is it ideal. The water is deep and clear with the depth dropping off deeply near shore with no shallows or mudflats for gators to bask and few hiding places. Correspondingly, however, the depth of the water may have concealed the alligator's approach.
    • The report noted there were "no swimming" signs at the lagoon but made no note of signs warning tourists of the potential danger of alligators. Disney has since erected warning signs.
    • The report noted at least two people tried to alert Disney staff to the alligator. A South Carolina tourist spotted the alligator from his hotel porch about an hour before the attack. He said he pointed out the animal to a Disney employee. Just before the attack, he saw children in the ankle-deep water and was going out the door to warn them when he heard the mother screaming.
    • A North Carolina woman on the beach reported that her daughter told a Disney "movie coordinator" about seeing the alligator about 5 feet from shore about 8:15 p.m. That man told another staff member. The woman said she and her daughters then went into a store, where they were when the attack occurred.
    Asked by CNN if the investigation examined Disney safety protocols and regulations, a commission spokeswoman emailed that "FWC's thorough investigation focused on the death of Lane Graves."
    Asked by CNN what steps the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has taken to ensure tourists are informed about potential dangers, the spokeswoman said it relies on "private property owners" to contact them about wildlife issue and referred such questions to Disney, which declined to comment. The spokeswoman also referenced the commission website regarding nuisance alligators and noted that alligator attacks are a "very rare occurrence in Florida."
    The report noted that Orange County, where the attack occurred, ranks fifth of 67 counties in Florida in the number of unprovoked alligator bites, with 17 in the 66 years of recording the statistic. This was the first fatal attack in Orange County, the report said.

    Report describes how attack happened

    • The alligator that killed Lane took him in a predatory manner consistent with the reptile's hunting habits. It prowled the shoreline, administered a crushing bite and dragged the boy to deeper water. Neither the boy nor his family provoked the alligator.
    • The report concluded the cause of the attack was a predator viewing the child as food. While gators seldom see humans as food, attacks on people have happened. The boy's small size and the fact that he was bent over at the time of the attack may have caused the alligator to believe he was smaller, more appropriate prey such as an opossum, armadillo or raccoon, the report said.
    • The alligator may have lost its fear of humans because it lived near large numbers of people.
    • The Graves family had no indication of the danger. Matt Graves, who was a few feet away, heard a splash, which he thought was a fish. He looked over and saw his son bent over the water and saw the gator grab him, biting down on Lane's head and neck.
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    • Matt Graves jumped into the water and tried to open the gator's mouth, but it injured the father's hands and took off with Lane. Another witness said he saw Matt Graves grabbing his son's legs to pull him free but the gator pulled the boy farther out and then underwater. The boy's body was found submerged nearby with only the wounds from the initial attack. Investigators believe the alligator dropped the boy when it broke Matt Graves' grasp and went underwater.
    • Matt Graves suffered an injury on his leg but does not know how he received it. He did not see any other alligators.

    The hunt for the alligator

    • Wildlife experts concluded that three of the six alligators caught by trappers fit the 7- to 8-foot size authorities thought were capable of the attack, based on the size of the victim and his profile of appearing even smaller because he was bent over.
    • Two of the suspected gators had empty stomachs and were caught near where the boy's body was found. The report said an alligator would typically stay in an area where it had lost its prey.
    • The report concluded one of those two alligators was the likely killer but it acknowledged it could not say so with certainty. It noted the bite-mark analysis on the victim was inconclusive because of the lack of a distinct bite pattern. No animal DNA was found on the victim's wounds to allow for a match to any of the gators.
    • The commission stressed, however, that it is confident it caught the offending animal, noting that the area was poor habitat for alligators and does not support a large population of adult alligators. Also, a trapping and hunting operation over multiple days did not locate any other alligators capable of inflicting the fatal bite.