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Crocodile memorial attended by more than 200 mourners

By Staff | Feb 9, 2010

With refuge manager Paul Tritaik, left, looking on, Janie Howland shares one of her crocodile stories with the crowd attending a memorial service last Thursday at SCCF.

While there were a few tears that flowed during Thursday’s memorial service in memory of Sanibel’s famous American crocodile, who passed away last month, there were many more smiles on the faces of the more than 200 mourners in attendance.

That’s because the aged reptile – all 11 feet and eight inches of her – was so beloved by her fellow island residents.

“We had baby-sat for her since the early 1990s,” said Jeanne Rankin, who lives on Wild Lime Drive. “That’s why we have such strong feelings for her. She spent a lot of time in our neighborhood… I even watched her dig her nest and lay her eggs.”

Staged on the front porch of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Nature Center, the memorial came just nine days after Dee Serage-Century, Landscaping for Wildlife Educator at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), discovered the body of the crocodile on Jan. 26 during an afternoon stroll along the East River Trail.

Shortly after the croc’s body was sent to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Service’s Forensics Lab, where a necropsy was performed, Serage-Century began to make arrangements for the service.

Everyone in attendance sipped a glass of Gatorade in tribute to the passed crocodile.

“I cannot believe that you’re all here,” she told the standing-room-only crowd. “This is just incredible. Where else but on Sanibel could there be such an outpouring of love for a ‘scary’ creature that we all became so protective of.”

Mourners were invited to share their stories of encounters they had with the crocodile, known by many as “Wilma.” According to one attendee, the first name she was given more than 25 years ago was “Snaggletooth.” However, that moniker didn’t catch on or seem appropriate for the great creature.

“I think that she is such a big story and I’m so proud of our community who protected her,” Serage-Century added. “Hers was just an amazing story that could only be told here.”

Paul Tritaik, manager of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, first spotted the crocodile during his initial visit to the island. In her memory, he wore a “non-regulation” baseball cap, which featured a cartoon image of the frequent refuge inhabitant.

“I’m honored to be a part of this crocodile’s legacy here on Sanibel,” he said. “She was certainly one of the most popular animals people would want to see when they came to the refuge.”

Former Sanibel mayor Mark Westall said it was "an honor" to share the community with the 11-foot crocodile.

Tritaik, who also called the croc “regal” and “a sight to behold,” informed that audience that Wilma’s skeletal remains are to be displayed at the refuge’s Education Center in the future, but it will likely take up to a year for her to be returned to Sanibel.

“It was really a privilege whenever we had an opportunity to see her,” Tritaik added.

Manfred Strobel, who lives on Sanibel Bayous Road, recalled seeing the crocodile many times over the years.

“One time I saw her dig six holes, and she laid eggs in three of them,” he said. “She stayed around the yard and watched her nest about six months that year. She was simply fascinating… a very special creature to have as a part of Sanibel.”

Former Mayor Mark “Bird” Westall, who noted that the croc was first seen on the island around 1980, was at least 40 years old at the time of her passing.

Islanders lined up to add their signatures to a life-sized poster of the reptile.

“The cold spell was at least a contributing factor, if not the cause, in her death,” he said, noting that during this winter more than 100 crocodiles in Florida have succumbed to weather-related illness.

During the service, Serage-Century led the crowd in a toast to the fallen beast. Afterwards, mourners were invited to view a videotape made by Janie Howland of the croc as well as add their signatures to a life-sized poster of the animal.

While Howland shared several stories of the crocodile, including a touching remembrance of waking up every three hours to check on Wilma’s nest – although her eggs were infertile due to no male crocodiles in local waters – Westall summed up the loss of the rare creature best.

“I think that it was so cool that we could live around her,” he said. “Obviously, she was not a puppy dog, but she was an animal that you could peacefully coexist with.”

“It wasn’t a hassle to live with this crocodile,” Westall added. “It was an honor.”

Dee Serage-Century shared her thoughts on finding the fallen animal.