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St. Tammany alligator threat not going away

8/1/2008

In Kingspoint subdivision near Slidell, everyday life is marked by certain rituals.

Stepping outside for the morning newspaper. Walking or bicycling on the streets and nearby paths. Looking out for alligators.

Few alligators are as large and aggressive as the almost-11-footer that attacked 11-year-old Devin Funck as he swam with friends Wednesday afternoon in the former gravel pit known as Crystal Lake. But they're too plentiful for many neighborhood residents.

"Seeing a gator is just like seeing a dog walking down the street," said Keith Parfait, a resident of the Pinehurst section of Kingspoint.

Kevin Hopkins lives about half a mile from the lake, beside a waterway where many alligators roam.

"Every day that I walk out the back door I look at the creek to see if there's an alligator," he said. "We know they are back there, and you talk to your kids about it, tell them to be careful."

A 10-foot, 8-inch alligator, weighing an estimated 500 pounds, bit Devin's left arm off, all the way to the shoulder, on Wednesday about 3 p.m. as he and two friends splashed in the lake. The boy got free, but was critically hurt.

Authorities caught and killed the alligator and retrieved Devin's severed arm, but surgeons at Ochsner Medical Center were unable to reattach it.

The boy and his parents were in good spirits Thursday, according to Cory Dunn, a family friend.

Sheriff's Deputy Howard McCrea, who caught the alligator involved in Wednesday's attack, was called back to the subdivision Thursday afternoon. The same woman who had called 911 to report Devin's injuries called to report a 4-foot alligator in her backyard, authorities said.

McCrea captured it and then decided to take a look at the nearby lake. There he spotted two other 8-foot alligators in the water.

Sheriff Jack Strain said his department is conferring with the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department to determine whether capturing the alligators is legal.

The sheriff said reptiles that are a nuisance or threat can be retrieved.

So at least two more alligators are loose in the lake, "in case people thought that was the only gator," Strain emphasized.

Hopkins, like many other residents, moved from New Orleans to the Slidell area because of better schools and "more property for the money."

Since Hurricane Katrina, he said, the frequency of alligator sightings has increased dramatically. Whereas he used to catch about two gators a year along the creek that abuts his home, now he sees them, usually measuring 4 to 5 feet, about once a month, Hopkins said.

Last year, one had a cat in its mouth. McCrea captured that one. But when McCrea can't make it, Hopkins said, he'll catch the smaller gators himself and transport them to less-inhabited areas.

"We certainly cannot afford nor do we have the manpower to send someone out every time they see an alligator," Strain said when asked about residents calling his office. "It is not realistic to think that you can buy a home that is surrounded by canals and lakes, marshes and swamps, and not see any gators."

The Kingspoint Swim Club's blue-tiled pool was damaged by Katrina's strong winds and 6-foot storm surge. It has not been repaired, tempting more youngsters to seek out Crystal Lake as a place to swim.

Cindy Walden, who had run the Kingspoint Swim Club, said she tried "to convince anyone to listen that there were grants out there to repair it, but the long and short of it is that no one took the ball and ran with it to get it up and running."

Chris Weaver, the president of the Pinehurst Homeowners Association, said repairing the pool must be more of a priority now.

We don't have a viable recreation area for people to play, so children are going to find places, create places. That's what children do," Weaver said.

Neighborhood resident Alphonso Mitchell, 14, said he would swim in Crystal Lake because there was nowhere else to go.

"They need to open the pool back up," he said Thursday.

Hopkins suggested clearing the local retention pond, and posting alligator warnings and "no swimming" signs.

"It could act as a deterrent, just like putting up lights to prevent burglars or stop signs to slow cars down," he said.

A donation account has been set up in Devin Funck's name at Capital One Bank to help pay for the cost of surgeries and prosthetics for Devin and school supplies and uniforms for the boy's brother and sister.

Aamco Transmission in Slidell, Covington and Metairie will match a percentage of any donation receipt brought in or donate to the fund a portion of its labor charge for any service, Dunn said.

For more coverage, go to NOLA.com

Writer Benjamin Alexander-Bloch can be reached at bbloch@timespicayune.com or 985.898.4827.