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Florida woman relives terrifying hippo attack: 'I didn't feel any pain, it was just more of survival'

Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-31 07:17:08-05

A Florida woman said her life flashed before her eyes last month when she was attacked by a hippopotamus while canoeing during an African safari.

Kristen Yaldor and her husband, Ryan, were enjoying a canoe safari on Zimbabwe's Zambezi River on Dec. 1, when one of the guides saw hippos on the right side of the river and instructed guests to paddle to the left, away from them, tour operator Wild Horizons said in a statement after the attack.

"I didn't have any fear getting into the canoe whatsoever thinking that something like this would happen," Yaldor told "Good Morning America" on Thursday. "He did tell us with his binoculars he did see hippos, a group of hippos up on the right-hand side.

"But when I had looked over, the only thing that I saw was just a back of a hippo went underneath [the water]. I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know if it just submerged itself, or if that meant it was starting to charge underwater," she added.

Yaldor and her husband said they were riding in a two-person canoe when the attack happened. As they paddled, a hippo emerged from underneath and capsized the canoe.

"Something popped up underneath our canoe, more towards the middle, to the front. And I could see that it was a back of a hippo," Kristen Yaldor said. "The canoe tipped forward to where I fell into the water toward the deep side."

"For about 45 seconds total, I was underneath the water, from what I estimated. I didn't feel any pain. It was just more of survival," she added.

Ryan Yaldor was also knocked in the "murky, dirty" water, but he managed to swim back to shore. When he turned around and screamed for his wife, she popped out of the water, her right leg still in the hippo's mouth, he said.

"She was gone. She was nowhere to be seen, just disappeared," Ryan Yaldor told "GMA." "And I can see the other canoe, farther down, and they're just standing there, screaming, you know, hoping that she's gonna come back up to the surface."

Kristen Yaldor, who described herself as a wildlife enthusiast, said she fought the hippo as much as she could, punching the animal several times in the face.

"I was very close to feeling myself running out of air ... I had to do something to try to get it to let go," Kristen Yaldor said. "I grabbed its mouth to try to put it off my leg and I could feel its face and the leathery feel of its mouth and the front of his nose on my leg."

She said she fought the hippo, who may have been protecting her calf, until it eventually released her. She then swam toward the shore, where her husband helped her out of the water and into the nearest canoe.

"I was more terrified when it let me go," she said. "And then I attempted to swim to shore after that. I ended up backstroking -- about five backstrokes. And then I could reach the paddle of the guide on the shore. My fear then was that it was gonna come after me again. And then I didn't think I could survive, if it came after."

She was first taken to a small clinic in Zimbabwe and then transferred to a hospital in Johannesburg, a journey that took 14 hours from the time of the attack, according to the couple.

The hippo's teeth caused a ragged fracture to her right femur, for which she has had two surgeries -- one to repair the break and a second to remove the dead tissue, she said.

She may need additional surgeries as well.

"They say that most people that do survive hippo attacks don't make it to the hospital," her husband said. "If [the bite] was an inch or so in another direction -- she probably would have bled out in the canoe and not made it any past that."

Before embarking on the tour, guests are given a safety briefing and are required to practice paddling, in an effort to ensure they "are familiar with the mechanics of rowing down a river, and are competent to do so," Wild Horizons said in a statement.

"We would like to stress that while our guides are expertly trained and qualified to manage trips such as these, and that every preparation is painstakingly made, nature is unpredictable," the company added.