Word of warning: Changes abound at Cypress Gardens a year after woman is bitten

A visitor to Cypress Gardens passes a new sign warning of alligators on the trails that surround the swamp.

MONCKS CORNER -- About this time last year, a woman from Ohio was walking along a trail at Cypress Gardens and either stepped on an alligator or tried to step over it.

In either case, she wasn't watching where she was going, the gator was spooked, and the woman got bitten.

"That was a classic example of somebody ... not realizing how much they needed to be aware of the environment," said Ron Russell, an alligator expert who was called in as a consultant. "It could just easily have been a snake as an alligator. ... You've got to be aware of your surroundings, looking at the ground as well as anywhere else."

This spring, the tourist attraction has big yellow signs along the trails warning visitors to pay attention.

"We get a lot of people in here who have never been around live alligators before, and they certainly need to be wary," Cypress Gardens Director Dwight Williams said. "We don't want to scare them to death, but they do need to have respect for them."

Williams said the incident last year was the first time somebody had been bitten since he started at the gardens 15 years ago.

Berkeley County Risk Management Specialist Patricia Withrow said she hopes the new signs ensure it doesn't happen again. The signs went up last summer, so this is the first spring tourist season for them.

Withrow said she already was working on the new signs last year when the woman was bitten. A representative of the S.C. Association of Counties showed up at last week's Berkeley County Council meeting to give her a citation for the safety improvements at Cypress Gardens.

This also is the first spring season that dogs aren't allowed in Cypress Gardens.

"A low-profile animal is a real target for alligators," Williams said. "We just didn't want to take any chances. We've never had any problems with anyone losing a pet. We just thought that might be one less trigger."

Last spring, dogs were allowed on leashes. They're still allowed in the winter months, when gators are snoozing.

An alligator pulled a dachshund into a pond and killed it a few years ago in the Planters Pointe subdivision in Mount Pleasant, and a gator attacked and released a bigger dog in Crowfield Plantation in Goose Creek.

The Cypress Gardens staff also added four steel cables to the top of the fence around the alligator exhibit.

The three captive reptiles appear sluggish, but they could be more dangerous than wild ones if anybody got near, Russell said.

"Dealing with captured alligators is 10 times more dangerous than dealing with wild alligators because captive alligators don't have no fear of people," Russell said.

Wild alligators don't attack people, but they will bite if you step on them, he said. An alligator also will bite if you scare it and get between the gator and the water, he said.

"People get bit because of one of two things, either putting themselves in the wrong situation with one or messing with one," he said.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.