Saturday, January 30, 2010

Islanders mourn passing of iconic crocodile

Sanibel's most prominent reptile inhabitant, an 11-foot female American crocodile, passed away recently. Her body was discovered on Jan. 26 along SCCF's East River Trail.

Earlier this week, Sanibel truly lost one of its most prominent permanent citizens and icons of the island: the saltwater American crocodile - known to many as "Wilma" - who had inhabited the region for more than a quarter century.

Dee Serage-Century, Landscaping for Wildlife Educator at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), made the discovery on Jan. 26 during an afternoon stroll along the East River Trail, directly behind the SCCF Nature Center.

"It looked like she had come up onto the bank of the river... you could see the crawl marks behind her," Serage-Century said on Friday, her voice filled with emotion. "It was probably a combination of old age and the lengthy cold spell that did her in."

Staff members from SCCF and the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge - where the crocodile had been most frequently spotted throughout her years - placed the reptile's body on a large plywood board and carried her to an eastern section of the preserve, where a vehicle transported her body to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Service's Forensics Lab.

"In her 25-years plus on Sanibel, she helped define our community as one dedicated to living with wildlife, even the big, beautiful, scary ones," added Serage-Century, who guessed the age of the reptile at between 40 and 60 years. "She was unique in her 11-foot length - large for a female - and the northernmost of her species in Florida."

Don Parsons, a field guide for Tarpon Bay Explorers, had witnessed Wilma's presence within the refuge for several years during his guided tours along Wildlife Drive.

"She had been a fixture at "Ding" Darling NWR since the 1980's," he said. "She was one of the more talked about animals that lived in Southwest Florida and will be missed by everyone that saw her."

In early November, Parsons e-mailed a trio of images of the lady croc to the Island Reporter, adding the following text:

"This morning, I came across the large crocodile that lives in this area. She was sunning herself along Wildlife Drive about 200 yards before the powerlines. Before today, I hadn't seen her for about 18 months, so this sighting was a highlight for me."

Paul Tritaik, manager of the refuge, made the following comments about her death.

"Her hide and tissue are being sent to the FWS Forensics Lab to analyze her body chemistry and DNA," he said. "We hope to salvage her skeleton for future educational purposes. She was an island icon and will be missed by all current and former refuge staff, volunteers and partners."

As news of Wilma's passing spread across the island, some of the more shaken mourners were the volunteers who would come across the famous crocodile, either at SCCF, the refuge or in their own backyards.

On Wednesday, Jeff Combs, volunteer coordinator at "Ding" Darling NWR, announced the somber news via e-mail.

"Yesterday afternoon, the American crocodile was found dead on a secluded spot on the bank of the Sanibel River. The refuge manager verified it was her. All of the refuge staff went out this morning and we moved her body. She was sitting on the bank with her mouth wide open, just like she did so many times on Wildlife Drive," he wrote. "It is more than likely cold stress. She had evidently been there for a while. This is of course a very sad event for the refuge and everyone on the island. She was very well known here and will be missed."

Combs also noted that he would send out a full report when the results of the necropsy come back.

Longtime islander Paul Reynolds, who called the crocodile "Sanibel's biggest celebrity," offered his thoughts on her passing.

"Refuge officials object to 'personalization' of wildlife, so they were never happy with the name 'Wilma' that some gave our only American crocodile. Don't doubt, though, that she was an individual of special privilege around this area," he wrote. "Word is she succumbed to the cold, since she was already north of her native climate. Those cold days were too much for her, and a Sanibel symbol is gone. You may be certain a huge number of volunteers and refuge officials mourn her passing as I do."

On Friday, Serage-Century announced that an informal memorial and remembrance ceremony will be held on the front porch at SCCF, located at 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road, on Thursday, Feb. 4 beginning at 3 p.m.
"We're going to toast her with Gatorade and share stories about her," said Serage-Century, who noted that a plaque will mark her final resting place along the trail. "She so defined us as a community and a lot of folks will be able to share their personal stories about her. Everyone loved her."

Without missing a beat, Serage-Century added with a smile, "I hope some people will wear their Crocs, too."

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