More than 14 years after it mysteriously appeared in the remote islands of the Dry Tortugas National Park, a solitary crocodile dubbed the loneliest in the world is gone.
On Sunday, after getting too chummy with visitors bearing food, park staff and state wildlife officials lassoed the threatened American croc, nicknamed Cleatus, and pulled it from the moat where it frequently hunkered under a bridge leading to Fort Jefferson. They taped its mouth shut and loaded it into a waiting sea plane while a crowd of tourists watched. Monday morning, after recovering from a tranquilizer, the croc was released in Everglades National Park in West Lake, just off the Main Park Road.
“It wasn’t a rash decision,” said park manager Glenn Simpson. “There were two considerations we held highest and that’s visitor safety and the safety of the crocodile and it’s general health.”
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The male croc first appeared in 2003, the first ever documented near the 19th century fort, puzzling park rangers and scientists baffled by its appearance some 70 miles west of Key West. In 2008, they captured it and confirmed through DNA testing that the croc was related to American crocs in the Everglades. It’s still not clear how it wound up so far from family.
Initially, the croc stayed close to East Key, about three miles east of Garden Key, which draws hundreds of tourists weekly to snorkel in gin-clear water teeming with minnows attracting tarpon, snapper and other larger fish. Then it began appearing near the fort, swimming down the moat, said retired park biologist Oron “Sonny” Bass.
Park officials considered moving the croc about a dozen years ago, but decided its innate shyness would prevent it from being a threat, he said. Unlike their African cousins that regularly attack swimmers in the Nile, American crocs are more reclusive and more likely to flee than attack.
“The animal sees on average 200 visitors a day, 365 days a year, so I’m sure it’s become habituated to humans,” he said, even though as of a visit last year the croc still appeared skittish, fleeing a beach when Bass walked by.
But Simpson said park rangers began to notice a change six to eight months ago, when the croc started spending more time near the campground and swimming beach. Infrequent sightings that occurred once every couple of weeks two years ago jumped to a half dozen a day, he said. Rangers reported anglers and visitors had increasingly started to feed the croc, which was gaining a social media following turning up in YouTube videos. So about six months ago, rangers started tracking its movements, similar to assessments done for aggressive bears in western parks, he said.
“We were starting to see a strong connection between people and food for the croc. It would start following people. When we start to see a change in behavior like that, it’s an indicator that the risk is a lot higher,” he said.
Then a week and a half ago, Simpson said an angler was spotted chumming waters near the croc, trying to draw it over. Cleatus made a beeline for the bait, which raised alarms, he said. On Friday, the park asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permission to move the croc, said spokesman Ken Warren, which must approve any actions because of the croc’s threatened status.
The number of saltwater crocs in North America has never been as great as its Caribbean neighbors, but by the 1970s, the numbers dropped to just a few hundred, according to University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti. Legal protection and increased nesting grounds helped revive the numbers to about 2,000 today, with more frequent sightings in the park and around Virginia Key.
Park biologists recommended moving the croc to West Lake where other crocs have been sighted and includes a mangrove-fringed wetlands more hospitable to crocs. While they are not tracking its movements, Cleatus is tagged with a yellow No. 6 that will allow rangers to identify him, Simpson said.
There’s also a chance Cleatus could come back. Once they stake out a territory, crocs tend to return. In 1998, state wildlife officials captured a croc near Black Point Marina that had become too cozy with anglers. They took it to Zoo Miami for 40 days, hoping it would forget its home range. But five months after they left the croc in a canal emptying into Florida Bay, it returned.
“Depending on where you put that animal will determine whether it makes it or not,” Bass said. “You don’t dump them where a lot of other animals are. There’s a hierarchy. It’s tricky business.”
As they filmed the croc’s removal Sunday, Robin Collingsworth and her husband, Shannon, said they knew they were seeing something unusual. The Indiana couple had heard the mysterious croc lived somewhere near the fort and had been on the lookout during their day trip. So when they saw a crowd gathered near the bridge, they suspected the croc was close. What they didn’t expect to see was the croc being pulled from the moat.
“Shannon said we have to put this on YouTube because it’s such an event. That’s something you don’t see very often., especially since he’s been there for over decade,” Robin Collingsworth said.
They were also torn about the croc being moved.
“We were completely torn because obviously he chose to live in that area,” she said. “But again, maybe he’ll find a mate up in the Everglades or find a friend.”
Simpson, who became the park manager five years ago, said staff was also sad to see the croc go after so long. But said the coral reef was an odd place for the croc in the first place, and one that never made much sense.
“It’s unfortunate,” Simpson said of the move. “We would have loved to keep him here forever.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich