"Like a ghost": Why alligators pose a lethal threat

Wildlife officials are trying to identify the reptile that killed the boy
Wildlife officials are trying to identify the... 02:43

The 2-year-old boy killed by an alligator at Disney World is one of at least 15 deadly gator attacks in Florida since 1997.

Experts at the East Texas Gators and Wildlife Park in Grand Saline, Texas say alligators possess a lethal combination of strength and speed. They can run and swim at speeds of more than 20 miles an hour and use their tails to thrust nearly their entire body out of the water, reports CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca.

A toddler's body was found Wednesday in a Dis... 02:19

Charlie Harris takes care of 41 alligators at his East Texas gator ranch.

"In the wild, alligators will eat once every three to five days. Here, we feed them twice a day, every day," Harris said.

All of the reptiles swimming in his pond were caught living too close to humans, including one 13-foot giant. Harris said some alligators are migrating from swamps to the city.

"They come over on rivers and they go up the creeks and the creeks go to the lakes," Harris said.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, American alligators live in waters all along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida, even in Oklahoma and Arkansas and as far north as North Carolina.

Last month, police captured one gator lurking near a Dallas middle school. And in suburban Houston, cops had to lasso a nearly seven-foot-long gator found in the middle of the road.

Rachel Lilienthal knows the terror alligators can unleash on people. She lost her arm in an alligator attack last year while swimming in the Wekiva River, about 20 miles north of Orlando. She was rescued by two people in a nearby kayak.

"It rolled me around the water. I had no idea how long it was going to keep me underwater," Lilienthal recalled. "Alligator swims off, I'm like, 'I'm free,' and then I realized I have only one arm. And that was... that was devastating."

Wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin discusses the ... 06:57

Harris said alligators are dangerous because of the way they hide and hunt.

"They are more active at night. They do most of their feeding at night," Harris explained. "They can appear and disappear like a ghost. Alligators are an opportunist eater. They will lay and wait for hours and hours until something comes along close enough that they can snatch it up."

In Florida, since 1948, there have been 384 reporter alligator bites not caused by someone handling or intentionally harassing a gator. Deaths are more rare - only 24 of those attacks resulted in fatalities.