Wildlife experts say feeding alligators can embolden them, and encourage… (Rodrigo Arangua / AFP/Getty…)
A Florida tour boat captain suspected of illegally feeding alligators may already have suffered the ultimate punishment: An alligator bit off his hand.
Animal rights activists on Thursday denounced the decision to kill the alligator in a bid to recover the man's hand. They said the captain, who is now under investigation for feeding the animals, is to blame for teaching the fearsome creature that people = food.
Wallace Weatherholt, 63, who works for Captain Doug's Everglades Tours, was taking six tourists out on the water Tuesday when he paused to give them a thrill -- and a photo op, according to WBBH of Fort Myers, Fla.
He began slapping the water to attract alligators, using marshmallows as bait. What happened next was more than the tourists expected: A 9-foot alligator lunged up and clamped down on Weatherholt's left hand.
"I was sitting there in the seat thinking, 'Is this thing really biting him, or is this a game?' " tourist Judy Chroniak-Hatt of Indiana told WBBH.
The creature surfaced again and struck the side of the boat, leaving Chroniak-Hatt and others fearful the craft was going to overturn. She said Weatherholt stayed calm until help arrived.
Weatherholt was later airlifted to a hospital. Authorities euthanized the alligator and retrieved the hand from its stomach, but reattachment turned out to be impossible, according to news reports.
If the investigation by Florida Fish and Wildlife officials proves that Weatherholt had been feeding the animals, he could face prison time or a fine.
Alligator expert Jim Nesci said Weatherholt paid the price for allowing alligators to associate his hand with food. A better option -- although not quite as thrilling for tourists -- would have been the use of a feeding tool that kept the captain's hand safely out of harm's way, Nesci said.
Of course, the best option is to avoid feeding wildlife altogether, he added.
"That was stupid," Nesci said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Alligators, such as the one seen above, possess the most powerful jaws within the animal kingdom, he said. Feeding 'gators just encourages them.
"You embolden them when you feed them," he said. "Then, people don't understand why [gators] hang around subdivisions. They've been taught that people mean food."
He and others criticized the decision to euthanize the creature. "This alligator was only doing what this guy had nurtured the alligator to perform. This guy has set up a set of circumstances where something like this was going to happen."
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also joined the chorus of criticism.
"This is a tragic incident that could have been avoided if people would heed the advice of wildlife experts and not feed alligators and other wild animals, who will then come to rely on people for -- or as -- food," PETA said in a statement to The Times.
A representative for Captain Doug's released a statement to The Times saying in part: "Wally is recovering at a central Florida hospital and is in good spirits. Please remember Wally and his family in your thoughts and prayers."
The company said it was establishing a "Wally's Fund" bank account to raise money on his behalf, and is also planning a fundraiser for him.