Call it a case of extreme puppy love.
One moment, Estero resident Richard Wilbanks was enjoying a cigar and a Bloody Mary in his backyard; the next, he was in the water wrestling his puppy from a gator’s jaws.
It was all caught on video, thanks to the “Sharing the Landscape” project, a partnership between the Florida Wildlife Federation and the fStop Foundation. As part of this project, there are 17 motion-detecting cameras set up on properties in three residential communities in Estero: Bella Terra, The Preserve at Corkscrew and Corkscrew Shores.
“We specifically chose that location in Estero because of its proximity to the Larry Kiker Preserve and the Corskcrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed,” explained Meredith Budd, Regional Policy Director for the Florida Wildlife Federation. “We want to elevate the idea that we need to coexist with wildlife.”
Wilbanks and his wife, Louise, also specifically chose the Corkscrew preserve area as the ideal place to build their new home four years ago.
“We picked our house because it’s at the very back of the preserve where the animals are. We wanted the interaction with the wildlife,” said Louise.
But they weren’t expecting the level of interaction Richard experienced on an unassuming Sunday afternoon in late October. Their three-month-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel pup, Gunner, was walking close to the water’s edge when he was suddenly snatched by an alligator.
Richard to the rescue!
“It was like a rocket coming out of the water. I didn’t even think. I just dropped my bloody Mary. I didn’t even realize I still had the cigar in my mouth. I just jumped in and grabbed him,” said Richard, 74, who can be heard grunting through cigar-clenched teeth as he tries to pry the gator’s mouth open. “That was a small gator, and I’m glad it wasn’t any bigger, because that is hard work getting an alligator’s jaws open!”
Richard estimates the “small” gator was four-to-five feet long. But in the moment, he said, “I had no idea how big the gator was—all I saw was the end of its tail.”
“God was looking after Gunner and myself,” he now says.
Right before Richard took the new pup outside, Louise had snapped a photo of the inseparable pair—Gunner tucked snugly under Richard’s arm as he held his bloody Mary in the other hand.
“I was doing the New York Times crosswords when they both came in soaking wet and covered in blood!” Louise recalled.
Thankfully, both dog and man quickly recovered from minor puncture wounds. Gunner had some water in his lungs and stayed a couple days in the animal hospital but had no lasting injuries.
And Richard? “They wanted to do stitches, but I just came home and used superglue.”
Gunner seems to know he’s safe with Richard.
“This little fellow’s face—he’s got eyes the size of a saucer, brown as they could be,” says his adoring owner and savior. “Wherever I am, he’s snuggled right up next to me.”
Richard now makes sure to keep Gunner on a short leash and at least 10 feet from the water’s edge.
“I’m getting older—too old to wrestle alligators, by the way,” he said.
Shocking video discovery
The video was a surprise discovery for the Sharing the Landscape team as they filtered through hundreds of hours recorded by their cameras in the previous month.
“The Wilbanks have an admirable outlook after the incident,” said Budd, noting the couple holds no ill will toward the gator, who was just doing what alligators do in their natural habitat.
The Wildlife Federation hopes to install more cameras as the new community of Corkscrew Shores is being built and Lee County Department of Transportation widens Corkscrew Road east of Interstate 75. A wildlife crossing is planned as part of the road expansion.
“We hope to continue to document and find out if wildlife patterns in the area change and if conflict increases with residents when that additional development goes in. It narrows the wildlife corridor,” Budd said.
The end goal is to create educational materials to present to area homeowners and organizations about how to share the landscape with the local wildlife while minimizing conflict.
While the video of Richard Wilbanks saving his puppy from the gator has gone viral, below is footage of some of the other wildlife typically captured by Sharing the Landscape. (All video courtesy of the Florida Wildlife Federation and fStop Foundation.)