"People are shook up," Hardwick said just before capturing a 9-foot, 4-inch alligator Monday in a residential lake north of Miami. "It's like the citizens of Florida have declared war on alligators. People are really going crazy."
Before the most recent attacks, only 17 deaths had been recorded in Florida since 1948, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Although Florida has never before such a concentration of deaths in so short a time, wildlife officials said there is no pattern or common element to the attacks.
One victim was a jogger whose body was found in a canal in Broward County, on Florida's Atlantic Coast; one was snorkeling in a recreation area near Lake George, in the central part of the state; another was found in a canal about 20 miles north of St. Petersburg, the state's Gulf Coast.
"These are unfortunate, unrelated coincidences," commission spokesman Willie Puz said. "We still caution everyone: Pay attention to your surroundings. Pay attention to what's in the water. Alligators are predators and wild animals that should be treated with respect."
Zack Auspitz said the recent deaths have made them think twice about going into the water. The 12-year-old and his family frequently swam in the Miami-Dade County lake where Hardwick made his capture Monday.
"I think my limitation will be that dock right now," said Auspitz, pointing to a floating wooden dock that used to serve as his diving platform. "I just don't feel secure."
Government researchers estimate there are between 1 million and 2 million alligators in Florida, but there have only been 351 recorded attacks on humans in the past 58 years.
Alligators generally shy away from people and are far less aggressive than related species such as Nile crocodiles, said Kent Vliet, a zoology professor at the University of Florida who specializes in alligators.
"It's a rare event to have an attack. But there's a lot of wetlands in Florida, and there are a lot of alligators in Florida. People spend a lot of time in the water in Florida," Vliet said.
The three attacks came during the peak of alligator mating season, when the animals are moving around in search of the opposite sex. In populous South Florida, lack of rainfall has dried up some wetlands, forcing more alligators to find new homes.
Alligator encounters with humans can also increase as more and more natural habitat is lost to development. The jogger who died was found in an area that was once part of the Everglades and is now home to thousands of suburbanites.
"We are building more and more into wild territories," Puz said.