WATCH: Man wrestles puppy from alligator's jaws without dropping his cigar
Estero, Florida - A man who wrestled his puppy from an alligator's jaws without dropping his cigar has been hailed a hero after footage of the encounter circulated widely online.
Richard Wilbanks, 74, was outside his home in Estero, Florida, when the reptile emerged from a pond in his backyard "like a missile" and dragged his three-month-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel below the surface.
"I never thought an alligator could be that fast. It was so quick," Wilbanks told CNN, adding that it was a sudden rush of adrenaline that spurred him to "automatically" jump into the pond to save the life of his new pet, who he named Gunner.
Surveillance video released this week of the 20-second incident, shows Wilbanks waist-deep in the water groaning as he pulls his puppy out of the water with the American alligator still attached to the lower half of its body.
Wilbanks can be seen thrashing around in the pond while straining to free the whimpering puppy from the alligator's clutches. More than 10 seconds later, Wilbanks succeeds in his bid to save the puppy - which is then seen running up the hillside away from the water and toward safety.
Wilbanks told CNN his hands were bloodied and "chewed up" after his battle with the animal, although the puppy - and the cigar - remained in one piece.
The incident was recorded by cameras that had been placed throughout the neighbourhood as part of a project that the Florida Wildlife Federation [FWF] and the fSTOP Foundation launched earlier this year. The joint initiative seeks to capture footage of wildlife in the community so that residents in the area can understand more about the animals that they live alongside - including deer, raccoons and wild bobcat.
Those behind the project hope to create an educational video that provides locals with invaluable information that helps them coexist with the many different animals in their backyard - in this case, literally.
In an email to The Washington Post, the Florida Wildlife Federation said the "Sharing the Landscape" campaign aims "to elevate the conversation about how humans and wildlife both inherently share the same landscape."
Wilbanks was one of many residents who volunteered in the spring to be involved with the project. Those selected live in houses that border wild habitat in Lee County.
There are 17 cameras across 15 different properties positioned to capture local wildlife in the neighborhood, according to Meredith Budd, Regional Policy Director at FWF, who says the abundance of animals is what makes the area so unique.
Staff at the foundation periodically check the memory cards of the devices to upload photos and were stunned when they reviewed the incident with Gunner the puppy.
"This footage was certainly not expected and it is not what we typically get on our cameras," Budd said, explaining that the cameras usually pick up footage of the animals roaming around freely or snacking on vegetation.
Following the incident, which took place in late October, the Florida Wildlife Federation urged locals to stay alert in order to avoid potential clashes in future.
"It is critical that people who live at the interface of wild land take extra precautions - dogs should be leashed and both people and pets should avoid lingering at the edge of large retention ponds where alligators are known to occupy," the organization said Monday.
According to Budd, Wilbanks remains passionate about local wildlife and continues to have "great appreciation" for his surroundings, despite what could have been a fatal attack.
American Alligators are often be found lurking in ponds, rivers and swamps in Florida and have notoriously powerful jaws that clamp down heavily on their prey. The reptiles are primarily carnivorous and it is not uncommon for them to seek out small pets as a source of food along with other mammals - although fatal attacks on humans are relatively rare.
There are more than 1 million alligators living in the state of Florida, according to nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife and around 5 million American alligators in the southeastern United States.
On Twitter, many marvelled at the footage, praising Wilbanks his quick thinking and bravery.
"Saved the puppy from getting eaten by an alligator and never dropped his cigar, a true legend," read one tweet, while others said the devoted dog dad deserved a medal for the gallant rescue.
Gunner was treated for a small wound to the stomach but is otherwise fine, while Wilbanks received a tetanus shot and will keep his pet on a leash and further away from the water from now on.
The lucky puppy, who Wilbanks said is "just like family," has since been spotted in TV interviews bopping around in a pink harness and licking his owner's face.