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The Disney World Alligator Attack Could Have Happened to Any of Us

Photograph by Disney

No family goes to "the happiest place on Earth" and expects to have a horrific accident and end up going home without one of their children. But that's exactly what happened to Matt and Melissa Graves after their son was snatched by an alligator from the shoreline of the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa during the family's vacation to Walt Disney World.

Matt and Melissa Graves from Elkhorn (a suburb of Omaha), Nebraska, were on the beach area at the Disney-owned resort with their daughter Ella, 4, and son Lane, 2. According to the Washington Post, Lane was wading ankle-deep in the Seven Seas Lagoon around 9 p.m. and was about a foot beyond the sand when the alligator attacked him and dragged the boy into the water. Matt Graves entered the water, trying to pry the 2-year-old from the gator's grip, but he was unable to save their son.

More than 50 law enforcement officers were deployed in boats and helicopters to search for the toddler. On Wednesday morning, divers used sonar technology in the water trying to find the boy’s body. They found the toddler on Wednesday afternoon, after an intense 16-hour search, about 10 to 15 yards from the bank in about six feet of water.

“Words cannot describe the shock and grief our family is experiencing over the loss of our son,” the family said in a statement.

And while trappers removed and euthanized five alligators from the lake—and will compare bite marks to determine if one of them was responsible for the attack—unfortunately, nothing will bring the Graves’ son back. According to Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, the alligator that attacked Lane was between four and seven feet long. Autopsy results showed that the boy's cause of death was drowning and "traumatic injuries." The body was released to the family on Friday so they could return home to Nebraska.

“The family was distraught, but also, I believe, somewhat relieved that his body was found intact,” Demings told reporters. No charges will be filed against the parents because authorities say there was no foul play or indication of neglect.

But many are wondering if negligence charges should be filed against the resort for not having signs clearly posted to warn guests about the danger of gators and other animals that inhabit the waters near where the resort frequently holds beach movie nights and has lounge chairs set up on the sand.

Although Florida residents are well-versed in the dangers of where alligators lurk, it's unlikely that many out-of-state tourists are as familiar with safety precautions to avoid alligator encounters—least of all if there are not sufficient warning signs to note their presence.

Despite “no swimming” signs being posted around the area, it’s common for resort guests to walk along the water’s edge, wade ankle- or knee-deep, and for children to play in the sand close to the water. In fact, many parents have posted photos on social media of their own children playing near the same spot where Lane Graves was attacked by the alligator. Witnesses told reporters that the attack happened in under than a minute.

Although Florida residents are well-versed in the dangers of where alligators lurk, it's unlikely that many out-of-state tourists are as familiar with safety precautions to avoid alligator encounters—least of all if there are not sufficient warning signs to note their presence. Disney stopped allowing swimming in the lagoon in the 1990s, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (FWC) often works closely with the Disney park and resorts to remove “nuisance alligators” that are at least four feet long and pose a threat to people, pets or property. Florida has the largest gator population in the U.S., and the reptiles live in every county across the state. Florida's alligator population is estimated at more than a million reptiles. Experts say a fatal attack of this nature is very rare, and according to the county sheriff, has never happened before in the 45 years Disney has been operating in the state of Florida. The last alligator attack on Disney property in the Orlando area was in 1986 when an alligator bit a boy at Disney's Fort Wilderness campground, but the attack was not fatal.

According to the Florida FWC, alligators are opportunistic feeders and are known to lunge at prey within a few feet of the shoreline. Many tourists have come forward to share stories of alligator sightings at the resort, and even some employees said they had voiced concern to the resort about fencing off the area due to the danger of gators and water moccasins, a type of venomous snake that can deliver a painful and sometimes fatal bite.

A Disney spokesperson said the company would be reviewing their signage and has already erected temporary fencing around the shoreline with signs to alert guests to stay away from the water due to alligators and snakes, and warning them not to feed wildlife. Alligators typically do not bother humans if they are not being fed. A few employees told reporters that they previously had problems with resort guests feeding wildlife.

Jennifer Venditt, a mom who was also vacationing at the resort with her family at the time Lane Graves was attacked, posted photos of her son playing in the exact same area of the shoreline only about an hour before the attack.

Other parents took to social media to plea for solidarity with the Graves family, rather than judging them, pointing fingers or directing blame for the horrific accident.

Blogger Kristen Howerton wrote on Facebook: “It’s easy to throw other parents under the bus when something terrible happens because we want to believe ourselves better. We want to comfort ourselves with the idea that our superior parenting could prevent a tragedy; that bad things could only befall an incompetent parent. But the truth is, bad things happen to good parents, and they deserve our empathy, not our judgment.”

We couldn't agree more.

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