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BOCA RATON — A month after Suzan Marciano and her golden retriever mix Nalu were bitten by an alligator at a Boca Raton park, she and her dog have still not returned to the trail they used to walk nearly every day.
In the early evening of Aug. 24, Marciano, 74, of Boca Raton, walked along the trail at Burt Aaronson South County Regional Park with Nalu and her son’s brown Australian Kelpie, Hershey. There was no one in sight that evening, and Marciano said she loved the park where she gone for years for its seclusion and quiet.
But the ordinary routine for her and the dogs quickly came to an end that evening. About 6:30 p.m., Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers got a call about an alligator attack at the park.
Nalu, having walked the park many times, ran through the bushes and down toward the lake. Hershey followed. Marciano said she had never seen alligators there before but noticed the more than 6-foot-long shadow approaching Nalu while the dog stood chest deep in the water.
“I just decided to walk to the edge of the water, and I saw a shadow on my right. And it’s not anything that I usually see because it’s clear usually and the sand is white underneath. So I looked at it, and I followed it with my eyes and it was the shape of an alligator,” she said.
“It’s just this black alligator under the water and when I realized what it [was,] my heart just stopped.”
In a matter of seconds, Marciano said the alligator’s mouth was around Nalu. The dog began struggling to keep its head above water.
Without thinking, Marciano stepped into the water and came down onto the top of alligator with both hands. The reaction was pure instinct, she said, to save her pet of 11 years.
“I just remember feeling how rough and sharp it was,” she said.
Nalu escaped, but both the dog and owner were injured. Marciano’s hand had been bitten. She pulled away and immediately began running with Nalu. The alligator sat lurking beneath the water, the second dog only feet away and still walking toward the water’s edge.
Once she got Hershey’s attention, Marciano said she screamed and cried for the 10-minute walk back to her car. When others in the park saw the blood running from her hand, she didn’t want to wait for help.
“All I wanted to do was leave and go home,” she said.
An incident report from FWC says officers arrived 20 minutes after Marciano told the witness about the alligator in the water and drove off in her car. By then, they couldn’t find any alligator in the water or the scene where the attack happened, the report says.
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Pets can be mistaken for an alligators’ natural prey and should be leashed and kept at least 10 feet away from any body of water’s edge, the FWC recommends. Alligators are typically most active in the evening hours between dusk and dawn, FWC says.
A spokesperson for the FWC’s south regional office said serious injuries from alligator attacks are rare. Their Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program (SNAP) uses alligator trappers across Florida to safely remove any that could be a threat to people or pets.
The best thing to do in the event of an attack is to fight back by making “as much noise and commotion as possible,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hitting the alligator’s eyes may cause it to release its grip.
Later that night, Marciano went to the emergency room and left with five stitches in the palm of her hand. Nalu underwent two hours of surgery to treat the punctures and is still healing.
Marciano said eventually she will return to the park, but for now, she takes Nalu to a nearby dog park.
“I’ve been healing myself telling the story. Eventually I won’t have such a horrible feeling. I still have it when I picture that shadow in the water,” she said. “I think that was the most horrendous moment of the whole ordeal.”