Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
Eric Merda usually didn’t have much free time from his irrigation service job, but on July 17 he had a much more comfortable schedule and wanted to take advantage of a few hours.
He decided to explore the Manatee Fish Camp, near one of his workplaces. He ended up in a swampy area near Sarasota, Florida, where he lives.
His time that summer Sunday turned into what he described as a nightmare survival story: four days and three nights lost, exposed, suffering alone in the swamp after an alligator bit off his right arm to break off.
“I faced the swamp,” Merda, 43, said Wednesday, nearly recovered and ready to share the details of his experience. “The swamp answered another challenge for me.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating the attack, spokeswoman Tammy Sapp said.
A nuisance alligator trapper removed two specimens (2 meters and 3 meters long) from Manatee Lake on July 21, he said.
According to Merda’s account, he began to explore the stream, but the heat became intense and he was dying of thirst. I wasn’t thinking clearly and I was lost. Like many Floridians, he was used to the risk of alligators, but decided the best option to find his way back to his car was to take a dip in Manatee Lake.
The lake is an artificial reservoir, covering a little more than 5 square kilometers, created in the middle of the last century; a state park located on part of its shores indicates that it is alligator habitat.
Within minutes of entering the water, Merda said, he realized his clothes were on his trail, so he got rid of them.
It was then that he saw the alligator in the water, less than 60 centimeters parallel to him.
Merda said he tried to swim away, but the animal was faster. He leaned on his right forearm and they were struggling. The animal submerged it three times, then bent its limb back and jumped on the elbow, the alligator swam away with its chest and hand on its snout.
Merda struggled to reach shore, sick and in shock. He fought against restlessness and tried to move forward, sleeping as much as he could when he could, but never stopping to look for the shore so as not to get lost again.
“I kept getting lost in the weeds,” he said. “I was afraid to go back in the water, but I had to do it. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to get out there.”
At some point, he said, the bleeding from his arm stopped, but he knew he was in bad shape. “My bone was sticking out, my muscles were contracting,” he detailed, and, in a scene worthy of a horror movie, he said, he looked back and “the alligator kept popping up here and there.”
Merda said he climbed on a stump for a while hoping to find it, but eventually decided to continue. He lay down when his body was no longer allowed to move forward.
“There were many times when I couldn’t move forward, enough,” he said. “Of course, as the days got longer, it got worse. If I had to guess, I bet the last day I didn’t move more than 300 feet.”
Flies swarmed his limb. His training in the Reserve Officers Corps taught him that he needed to tour his arm, but he had nothing to do with it. He cut himself walking among thorns; red ants attacked his back. The purple flowers he chose were his food. He drank water from the lake.
Merda said his family and friends began to realize something was wrong because he wasn’t posting on Facebook and called local hospitals to try to find him.
The rescue finally came to fruition on July 20, when he came upon a fence at Manatee Lake Fish Camp and found a man. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and Manatee County Emergency Medical Services responded.
He was airlifted to safety and spent three weeks at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. The doctors amputated an extra part of his arm because it was infected.
In states with large alligator populations, including Florida and Louisiana, people are at risk when near a body of water, and should take as much care to avoid an attack as they would to avoid drowning, according to Frank Mazzotti, professor of. wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, who has worked with alligators and crocodiles in the Everglades for 40 years.
Since 2010, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has reported between six and 15 unprovoked alligator bites per year. In 2021, there were nine in total and none were fatal. In 2022, 22 graft incidents were reported, but not all of these may be fully accounted for, depending on whether they are determined to be arson.
Experts recommend swimming only in safe areas, keeping pets on leashes, and not feeding alligators. According to Mazzotti, when animals attack humans they are not hunting, simply because they are too big. Most attacks occur because the alligator feels its territory is being invaded.
Currently, alligator populations are “healthy,” he said, and as real estate development progresses, people may be increasing their exposure to these animals. The Fish and Wildlife Commission operates a service, the State Nuisance Alligator Program, to remove alligators that are seen as a threat to people, pets or property.
However, if an attack occurs, the options are few. “If you’re in the jaws of an alligator and it won’t let go, fighting like your life depends on it,” said Mazzotti. “Because”.
As for Merda, he is leading the event. “Every day I thank God for giving me the opportunity to fight my way out of there,” he said.
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