PALM BEACH, Fla. — While planning a canoe trip with his son Friday at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Joseph Welch researched what to do in case they encountered an alligator.
Paddle quietly if they wanted to observe the gator, he remembered. Bang the paddle on the canoe to frighten the reptile if it got too close.
But what to do if a gator attacks? Welch had to learn the hard way when an 8-foot gator grabbed his 6-year-old son’s arm on the banks of a canal.
“It’s not something I ever want to relive,” Welch, of Pompano Beach, told The Palm Beach Post on Monday. “It was terrifying.”
Both father and son are fine today, aside from cuts and bruises, thanks to quick thinking and help from a stranger.
The attack happened Friday afternoon at the Refuge Lee Road boat ramp on the L-40 Canal, part of the refuge located off U.S. 441.
Welch, 49, said he was waiting in line to rent the canoe when he turned around to pay. Within a “split second” his son, Joey, bolted.
“Instantly I heard this screaming,” Welch remembered.
He said his son ran down a hill to an area that appeared to be dirt but was really a grassy area over water. The boy fell into the water and an 8-foot gator latched onto the boy’s right arm.
“My son is kicking, screaming,” he said.
Welch said he was hesitant about getting into a tug-of-war with the gator in fear that his son’s arm would be torn off or dislocated. So instead he put his left arm around his son’s chest and pounded the gator’s head with his right fist.
“It was just like hitting a cinder block and the gator didn’t even flinch.”
Adrian Silva Chavez, who was visiting from Spain and was in line to rent a canoe, screamed at Welch to pull Joey out of the water.
“But I didn’t want to pull my son out of the water until he was released,” Welch said.
Chavez was adamant, so Welch did what he said, and soon learned why that move was so important.
“He wanted a clear shot of kicking the underbelly of this gator,” Welch explained. “As I was coming up the hill the gator did start coming after us. (Chavez) kicked it three or four times … and it did let go.”
Rebekah Gibble, the refuge’s senior wildlife biologist, said the attack was unusual.
The gator was likely looking for food and thought the boy was a small animal, a gator’s “typical target.” Or, she said, the gator became aggressive, as humans tend to feed the reptiles fish or garbage near the ramp.
Licensed trappers with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission euthanized the gator with a bang stick. The stick acts like a gun but the killing is painless and quick. Killing the animal is standard procedure when the gator is aggressive in an area occupied by humans, Gibble said.
Joey and his father were taken to Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, both with minor injuries. Joey had minor cuts and bruises on his right arm, shoulder and chest; his dad’s right hand was bruised from punching the alligator with such force. Joey was given some antibiotics, to eliminate the chance of infection, and was sent home.
Joey hasn’t had any problems sleeping since the attack and even attended school Monday.
“We are extremely relieved the child made it out of this potentially deadly incident with only minor injuries,” Rolf Olson, the refuge’s acting project leader of Loxahatchee and Hobe Sound, said in a statement. “This really could have ended very badly.”
In July, a Moore Haven teen lost part of his arm after he was attacked by a 10-foot gator.
Kaleb “Fred” Langdale, who was 17 at the time, was racing across the Caloosahatchee River when the teen, who was born in Loxahatchee, lost part of his right arm when the reptile dragged him under water and tore it off.
In July 1993, 10-year-old Bradley Weidenhamer died when a gator attacked him in the Loxahatchee River. The boy was treading water and chatting with his friends when the gator grabbed him by his head.
Welch says he is concentrating on the positive to help him and his wife cope with the attack: Joey didn’t lose his arm, break any bones and he’s not suffering from emotional trauma.
Even though Joey’s mother, Jacqueline Welch, wasn’t with them on the canoe trip, Welch credits her for having something to do with him being alive.
“My wife tells me every single night when she puts him to bed that she prays for God’s protection over him,” Welch said. “She very specifically asks that God’s angels will watch him each and every day, and it’s apparent that they did indeed.”