SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah reptile center employee is recovering after an alligator yanked her into its enclosure during a presentation, thrashing her around before a fast-acting visitor leapt inside and helped free her from its jaws.
Video taken by a guest shows an unidentified handler at Scales & Tails Utah, in suburban Salt Lake City, talking to some adults and children about the alligator Saturday when it bit her hand and dragged her into the water.
Shane Richins, the company's owner, said in an interview Monday that the handler was opening the enclosure to feed the alligator as usual, but this time the reptile “got a little extra spunky.”
He said the center normally has a strict policy for a second handler to be nearby when employees are working with the alligators. But that hasn't been enforced in recent years if the worker isn't planning to enter the enclosure, he said.
"We still enforce it strictly whenever somebody gets in with the gator but, of course, going forward, we will be back to strictly enforcing it with any interactions with the gator for that very reason,” Richins said.
After pulling the handler into its pen, the alligator began whipping around and kept its jaws clamped on her as she struggled to break free.
One of the guests, later identified as Donnie Wiseman, yelled “We've got trouble in here!” before jumping into the water and climbing on top of the reptile.
Another bystander ushered the children away as they cried, the video showed.
Wiseman got the alligator pinned, and the handler calmly gave him and another man, Todd Christopher, instructions to help her escape from the pool. Wiseman stayed on top of the reptile until the woman was free.
Christopher's wife, who has a background in nursing, then began performing first aid before emergency crews arrived at the scene.
Richins said the handler underwent surgery and is taking antibiotics. The West Valley City business said Sunday she is “doing well and is in recovery.”
It hailed the visitors who rushed to her aid.
“These gentlemen could have stayed in the safety zone as most of us would, but instead jumped into the situation, of their own volition, and helped secure the alligator,” the company said in a statement. “Their help, combined with the training of our staff member, probably saved her life and her limbs.”
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.