An employee at a West Valley City petting zoo escaped an alligator attack with her life and all her limbs on Saturday thanks to her skill and training, as well as the bravery of two customers, the business’s owner told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Lindsay Bull was taken to a hospital after the 8-foot-long alligator grabbed her hand during a feeding. On Monday, she said a surgeon performed a procedure that should mean she won’t lose function in her hand. She said she plans to return to the job once she recovers.
“I can’t explain the level of admiration I have for that man [who helped save me],” Bull said in a statement on Facebook. The man was identified as Donnie Wiseman.
Petting zoo owner Shane Richins said everyone who works with wild animals knows it’s a dangerous job. Bull typically works with large reptiles like this alligator, named Darthgator, Richins said, so she knows there’s “definitely a lot of risk.”
Still, something like this hasn’t happened at the zoo before, Richins said.
Video of the attack obtained by FOX 13 shows a small group, including a few children, pressed into the “safety zone” around a glass-enclosed tank. Inside was a large alligator that Bull was about to feed in front of the group, which had paid for a private tour, Richins said. The animal had climbed out of the water and onto a concrete ledge.
Bull said Monday that this wasn’t unusual, and that she often has to coax him back into the water during feedings.
“He’s not supposed to come up on his platform,” Bull said in the video. She told the guests that she was going to try to get him back into the water and that it’d be “a little boring for a second.” Bull opened the door into the tank, and the gator lurched toward her. “Back,” she said, extending her hand.
Then the gator latched on to it. Someone in the crowd gasped. Bull jumped into the pool with her hand still in the reptile’s mouth.
“We’ve got trouble in here,” Wiseman yelled. Then the gator started to roll, a common predatory move meant to dismember prey. Bull rolled with him in order to keep her hand. In the video, a child can be heard yelling, “Mommy!”
Wiseman jumped into the enclosure to hold the animal down. Another man, Todd Christopher, leaned through the door to talk to Bull and try to help. He was able to pull her out when the animal let go.
The video shows Wiseman sitting on the reptile afterward, as Bull talked him through the best way to get off the animal and out of the tank. He eventually scrambled out.
“These gentleman could have stayed in the safety zone as most of us would,” read a post on the Scales and Tails Facebook page, “but instead [they] jumped into the situation, of their own volition, and helped secure the alligator.”
Richins said Bull reacted as she should have. She didn’t pull back from the bite. Instead, she got into the water with the animal. When the alligator spun, trying to yank her hand off, Bull rolled with it.
“That’s her training,” Richins said.
Bull told The Tribune that she was actually bitten twice on Saturday. The first was a lighter bite. Then came the second, when he “chomped down hard.” That’s when Bull said she knew the situation had gotten serious.
When she realized the gator was about to roll, Bull said she was scared, but she drew from her old training as a gymnast and acted regardless.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this. It is scary,’ [but] what other choice do you have?” Bull asked. “You’re going to roll and hopefully save your limb, or you’re not and you’re definitely going to lose your limb.”
The gator rolled her once, but Wiseman jumped into the pool seconds later and got onto the reptile’s back.
Bull and the two men stayed still as the gator calmed down, perhaps realizing that the animal it had tried to eat wasn’t a good food source, Richins said. That’s when it let go and Bull was able to get away.
Richins said the two men who jumped into action — one of them quite literally — to save Bull also acted admirably.
“It’s an intense situation,” he said. “I don’t know those gentlemen, but I would definitely want them on my side if things went down.”
Wiseman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but he thanked the petting zoo employees in a Facebook post — and said he’d be back.
“I’ll come visit again, I loved that place,” he said, adding later, “... I would really like to still hold that anaconda if [the bitten employee] would assist me when she is well.”
The Scales and Tails petting zoo purchased Darthgator from a breeder in Florida in 2009. He is one of four crocodilians at the zoo, which also has a cayman, a crocodile and a smaller alligator named Gatortot.
Although her rehabilitation will likely take months, Bull said she’d like to get back to Darthgator’s enclosure soon to sit and talk with him. That’s how handlers build rapport with animals.
As a child, Bull said she spent hours watching shows on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel. She treated her terrier like a crocodile sometimes, making videos of herself searching for it like the renowned late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin did on TV.
So, Bull said, she doesn’t hold the attack against the gator, who she affectionally called Darth. She understands he has a predatory instinct.
“We’re just absolutely great,” Bull said. “I told my buddies that now Darth and I are literally one because he’s got my blood running through his veins.”
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