Panthers and gators and bears, oh my!
The Sunshine State is home to scores of exotic and sometimes dangerous creatures, but a recent study ranks Florida as the third-deadliest state for animal attacks: 247 animal-related deaths between 1999 and 2019 — behind only Texas (520) and California (299).
After combing through 20 years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), outdoors blog Outforia published the findings last week, listing a number of animals responsible for the fatal attacks throughout North America: sharks, alligators, black bears, and snakes. Many of these critters live right here in Florida.
Dangerous as they may be, however, they're likely nowhere near as big a threat than the state's most menacing creature: Florida Man.
"Florida is constantly trying to kill us," says Craig Pittman, journalist and author of The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. Of Florida's third-place ranking, he says, "We should demand a recount."
Pittman, who has devoted his career to chronicling Florida's wild and wacky stories, can recall a number of gruesome animal attacks that had more to do with human ignorance than predatory instinct.
"One time in 2012, an alligator bit the hand off an airboat tour guide 'cause he was feeding the gator marshmallows so it would show up for tours," he says. The hand was retrieved from the alligator's stomach, but efforts to reattach the limb were unsuccessful and the animal was later euthanized.
Pittman also shares the tale of a woman who, after being mauled by bears in central Florida in 2014, blamed the assault on a "whack-a-doo" neighbor communing with the local ursine population.
"She told investigators, 'It's my neighbor, he comes out and feeds the bears. He says he's a bear whisperer and that he's gonna be on a reality TV show,'" Pittman says.
Though panthers might seem menacing, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman confirmed to PolitiFact Florida in 2015 that there has never been a verified panther attack on a human in Florida.
Wildlife expert and Zoo Miami communications director Ron Magill tells New Times that many of the allegedly "deadly" culprits are actually wary of humans.
"When I was growing up, we watched The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Now you see a lot of When Animals Attack or World's Deadliest," he says. "It sends the message that these animals are trying to kill you when that couldn't be further from the truth."
In fact, alligators and bears would much rather avoid us altogether than take a bite out of us.
"Animals want nothing to do with human beings, and the only time they get near to attack is when we feed them," Magill says.
Raccoons or ducks are far more appetizing to alligators than a human — which explains why when people walk their pets near canals at dusk (a gator's natural hunting time), they may mistake doggo for dessert.
"They're not the most intelligent animals. They act on instinct," Magill explains.
It's illegal to feed alligators in Florida, and Magill says that's for good reason: "We don't want them to lose their natural fear of humans."
If you find yourself in the company of a Florida black bear (the only bear species native to the state), Magill advises to raise your arms above your head and speak in a firm voice. A bear is less likely to attack when a person faces them directly and then slowly backs away, rather than running as if their pants were on fire.
"If you turn around and run and scream, you’re gonna trigger an instinctive prey response and they'll run after," Magill says. "That's a natural instinct in any predator — even dogs. But black bears are not instinctively aggressive animals."
So although Florida may be one of the deadliest states for animal encounters, the species that poses the biggest threat to others is likely Homo sapiens floridanus. If you're smart, you'll keep your distance from them, too.