The 31-year-old West Palm Beach resident was working in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife refuge when a gator struck.
Kelsey Pollack is an avid surfer and life-long adventurer. So the West Palm Beach native, who has a healthy collection of colorful surfboards, thought that if she’d ever, it’d likely happen on the open seas.
In other words, she thought she was safe walking through murky waters in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks ago.
Then the gator attacked.
She thought, if bitten by anything in her life, “I would have gotten bitten by a shark, not an alligator.”
It all started on a normal Thursday morning, Sept. 5, when Pollack, 31, was working as a contractor for the South Florida Water Management District studying tree islands in the wildlife refuge.
Her main job is to do aerial photographs, but she also does vegetation assessments, and bird and alligator counts. She’d been to the refuge tucked just west of Boynton Beach and south of Wellington over 15 times.
While studying one of six tree islands that morning, Pollack and her co-worker waded through dark, murky waters that were knee- to waist-deep. Alligators, on a normal day, tend to avoid the people studying the area, inputting data in their iPads, she said.
Not that day.
“I was just walking up toward the tree with my equipment and everything and then, all of a sudden, it just was thrashing in front of me. I must’ve just went up into its area,” Pollack told The Palm Beach Post.
“It was hiding out,” she said, explaining that normally the gators sit on the surface (of the water). And you’ll see their eyes and you’ll see their bodies sticking up.”
“This one was rare, it was kinda of lurking underwater. I must’ve just walked into its territory and it just whipped around – it was just 3 seconds,” she said.
Then she felt the bite on her leg.
And “before you know it, I was up in a tree.” That’s when the 5-foot, 2-inch, 108-pound Pollack scrambled up a nearby tree for safety. She said the gator was probably bigger than she.
The spooked gator ended up taking a 2-3 inch bite on her inner thigh.
She said it felt like a ”stabbing pressure.”
Frightened and shaking, she and the nervous co-worker turned her shirt into a tourniquet to control the blood streaming down her leg; for 7-10 minutes, the two reluctantly waded back into the water to reach a safer area, where paramedics could reach them.
“They gave me shots of antibiotics in the ambulance – left the wound open to drain,” she said. “They don’t stitch animal bites for infection purposes, which I didn’t know – just three (stitches) to hold it together.”
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue crews picked the researchers up near the refuge entrance and rushed Pollack to Delray Medical Center. She was released that afternoon.
Pollack understands she was navigating in the gators’ habitat, and she intends to continue the conservation projects, even if it means wading through the same murky waters in the refuge.
She even stresses the importance of protecting the ecosystem surrounding the estimated 1.3 million alligators in Florida, noting that in South Florida, alligators have been pushed to ”concentrated areas” and have had to adjust to a shrinking territory.
Pollack says her passion for studying and nurturing the environment supersedes her fear of being attacked again.
“I guess just growing up, I’ve always been really conscious of the environment and knowing that we depend on it just as much as we use it and exploit it,” Pollack said. ”So I think it’s important to protect.”
As for surviving the attack, Pollack is now all smiles and laughter and says her fellow surfers will get a kick out of her story. And she has the scar to prove it.
“I will tell them I hope gators don’t become salt-tolerant, for all our sakes,” she said. “Yes, I will have a scar since it wasn’t stitched all the way – I’ll have proof of my story.”