TAMPA — The Hillsborough River has always had its share of alligators, including large ones that leisurely swim by densely populated neighborhoods.
What it hasn't had before, as far as anyone can tell, is a nearly 12-foot alligator that someone tied a leash onto and tethered to a tree like a junk yard dog.
That alligator gator stretched 11 feet, 6 inches and may have hatched when Richard Nixon was president, said Phil Walters, the licensed trapper called out Wednesday afternoon to corral and kill the beast behind the Rivertree Landing Apartments off Sligh Avenue, east of 56th Street.
The back of the complex borders a scenic stretch of the Hillsborough River just south of Temple Terrace.
“We had heard that a couple of people had caught and tied the gator to a tree,” Walters said.
That was indeed the case. A stretch of parachute cord stretched from a tree over a 4-foot seawall and into the river, where the gator floated at the other end of the line.
Walters said some residents told law enforcement that unidentified people “had caught it and was feeding it cats,” keeping it as a backyard pet of sorts.
Whether the cat diet rumor is true or not, Walters was unsure. He does note that it's a bad idea to feed an alligator anything because the free food makes the reptiles lose their fear of humans and associate people on the shore with getting a snack.
The alligator was large and appeared to be in relatively good shape, Walters said.
“It was 11-foot-6 on tape,” he said, “but it looked bigger. It was a big fat healthy alligator.”
Walters, who also is a guide for alligator hunters, said he hasn't seen one this big this year, though he says they are out there, particularly in areas where they are not being hunted, like along the Hillsborough River near Temple Terrace.
He said he doesn't know how the leash was put on the creature.
“I don't know if they jumped up on its back,” he said, “or if they just lassoed it.”
It took five good-size men, Walters said, to haul the alligator up over the seawall once it had been killed.
Walters said he had no choice but to shoot the huge alligator. State law prohibits him from relocating an alligator more than four feet and it would be too dangerous to try, he said.
“Something that big,” he said, “let's just say it didn't survive our initial encounter.”
Shirley Bobadilla manages the complex, and the view from her office is the Hillsborough River. She said she had not noticed the gator tethered before Wednesday, when she spotted it when she walked over to chat with a couple of fishermen along the shore.
She immediately called authorities.
Alligators, she said, are a common sight along that stretch of river.
“But, we've never seen one that big,” she said. “It's the biggest one I've seen. It's just scary.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Baryl Martin confirmed that the gator did not appear to be malnourished and that it was tethered, presenting a particularly dangerous situation for people living in the complex.
He said residents told officers that “some young individuals had caught an alligator. It was a very large animal. It could have been 500 pounds.”
He said feeding and tethering the beast amounts to harassment and is illegal.
It's not uncommon for people to feed wild alligators, he said, and nuisance alligators are routinely caught and removed from populated areas.
But tethered to a tree?
“I haven't seen this before,” Martin said.
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