Why Alligators Attack and How to Avoid an Encounter With the Dangerous Reptiles

Alligators are usually more afraid of us than we are of them, but there are frightening exceptions.

There are more than 1.5 million alligators in Florida and usually, when confronted with a human, they will turn tail and head in the opposite direction.

But as Matt and Melissa Graves, the anguished parents of 2-year-old Lane Graves, learned, there are horrific exceptions to that behavior.

As authorities discovered the child's intact body in a Disney World resort lagoon, experts warned the best way to avoid the dangerous reptiles is to stay out of bodies of fresh water.

Especially at night.

The child who disappeared was playing at the water's edge about 9 p.m., while his parents were nearby.

That's prime feeding time for alligators, wrangler Christy Kroboth told InsideEdition.com Wednesday.

"If something is splashing in the night, that's like a dinner bell to an alligator," she said. "They can dart out of the water at lightning speed to take down prey."

And while an adult usually strikes fear in an alligator, a toddler playing at the water's edge will look like a racoon or another small animal, she said.

"Two-year-olds are going to kick their feet, they're going to splash, they're going to have a good time," Kroboth said. And an alligator investigating that noise is going to see "an easy food source, and he's thinking you shouldn't be in my water, so I'm going to bite."

The reptiles are very territorial and will attack each other to protect turf, Kroboth said. Females sitting on egg nests are even more so. It's also mating season, so larger male alligators are displacing smaller ones to make room for females.

The child's father tried to save his son by hitting the gator, believed to be about seven feet long, but that likely had no effect save scaring it, she said.

"If they have something in their mouth, they're not going to release it. Their jaws lock and they swim off."

The jaws of an alligator can exert up to 2,000 pounds of pressure when the close.

Recently, in story after story, gators in Florida have been seen walking across a golf course, being pulled from a street drain, using a crosswalk and lounging in a homeowner's swimming pool. 

But alligators roaming land in the daytime are most likely lost and looking for food, Kroboth said.

The cold-blooded creatures can walk or swim up to 20 miles a night, so if they're on land during the day "they've taken a wrong turn" and are just trying to find their watering hole, she said. 

David Hitzig of the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary said there's a simple rule about gators: "As long as they're left alone, they're fine."

"When we see people who have been attacked, it's usually alligators being fed by people," he said. 

Experts have long advised people in states with alligator populations to avoid swimming at night and to keep small children and pets away from the water's edge. 

"Alligators are dangerous, frightening animals," Kroboth said.