A stunned Steve Gustafson thought only of saving his “best friend” from the jaws of a 7-foot alligator carrying away his terrier for a quick meal.
Gustafson, a resident of The Villages retirement community northwest of Orlando, recalled Tuesday he was trimming his oak tree while the gator lurked in a quiet pond nearby. Bounce, a butterfly-chasing West Highland Terrier, was at the water’s edge when Gustafson heard a blood-curdling yelp. Terrified, he looked out and watched the gator swimming away with Bounce’s shoulder and collar in his grasp.
“I just knew that my best friend was going to be dead,” he said. “And I took off.”
Gustafson scrambled screaming to the water’s edge and took a running leap. After a frenzied struggle with the gator, the 66-year-old grandfather and retired corporate lawyer told wildlife authorities that he successfully rescued Bounce — and both dog and master escaped serious injury in the frightening encounter Friday.
“For whatever reason, I don’t know, I just yelled, ‘you’re not going to get her!’ and just leaped on the gator…just like you do some silly belly flop in a pool,” the Iowa native said. “The only difference was I landed on top of a gator.”
Within seconds he said he wrangled the reptile’s head to the bottom of the pond while grabbing its back leg. The 130-pound gator spun trying to submerge them all in 3 feet of water, but Gustafson regained his balance and shoved the gator toward the shore, a move that freed the diminutive Bounce, who weighs 13 pounds. The pooch slowly paddled for safety as Gustafson tossed the startled gator back into the pond, but not before it snapped at his right hand.
Shaken, soaked and bruised, Gustafson snatched Bounce and dashed to the shore with the wounded 9-year-old dog in his arms.
Gustafson’s neighbor John Scott, 77, witnessed much of the ordeal from his lanai while eating lunch but had no time to react.
“I saw a big, huge splash and the tail of the alligator, and Steve flipped out of the water,” Scott said.
Back on land, Bounce coughed water from her lungs. Her rabies tag was bent from the gator’s jaws and the reptile’s grip ripped her skin. Bounce and Gustafson later received medical treatment and a couple of stitches, but by Tuesday both were mostly OK.
“It’s like being in a really bad car accident and walking away from it,” said Gustafson, who stays active running sprints and playing softball.
Alligator biologist Patrick Delaney said gators are still thriving this time of year and ones that size usually eat small animals.
“Metabolisms are high because of the temperatures, so if they see an easy prey they’re going to try going for it,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission official said.
The agency doesn’t recommend that pet owners go after gators if they attack a pet because such encounters can be deadly. Aggressive attacks are generally decreasing, however, with only four recorded last year compared to 12 in 2006.
“They’re fast, and they can be dangerous,” Delaney said. “So, I would give them a healthy respect.”
The gator that attacked Bounce is no longer a threat to her or Gustafson. On Monday, a local trapper caught the reptile. Gustafson said he is getting the carcass processed. He plans to keep it on his lanai as a reminder of his love for Bounce and their lucky survival story.
In the future, Gustafson said he plans to keep a closer eye on Bounce when she’s near the shoreline.
“When people ask [about] my reaction — I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “If I hesitated I would have lost my best friend.”