By Pat Ford
There’s never a dull moment living in Florida. A few weeks ago my neighbor called me early in the morning and told me that there was an alligator in my front yard. I thought he was kidding but sure enough, outside my front yard was a seven foot gator probably trying to figure out how to get into the lake that my house was situated on. Several years before one of my neighbors had gone out to pick up her newspaper and found a 4’ crocodile in her driveway. This doesn’t really amount to a reptile invasion, but it appeared that the gator and croc had left the nearby canal, then headed across a field and onto our street. Our guess is that they could smell or sense the lake and were heading to it…only in Florida!
Many, many years ago in my attorney life, I represented the son of the alligator wrestler at the Miccosukee Reservation in a medical malpractice case. Over the many months that it took the case to get resolved, I learned a lot about alligators including how to handle them. Alligators aren’t really a threat to adults but they are to small children and pets. My clients told me that a gator will go into a moving canoe to get a dog. They like to feed on small mammals such as racoons, and a small child at the waters edge can easily be mistaken as meal worthy.
Nuisance alligators in Florida are very territorial and are rarely ‘relocated’. History has taught the Fish and Wildlife agents that gators will return to wherever they were captured no matter how far they are taken or how pleasant their new environment is. If you find one in your swilling pool, it will probably come back to it eventually. Hence most captured alligators are euthanized and sold for their meat and hide…private ‘trappers’ can get up to $100 a foot for a gator which is a major source of their income.One of the exceptions is the Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue in Homestead.
Everglades Outpost is a non-profit organization that has been in operation since 1991. It accepts and rehabilitates a wide variety of critters, most of which are released back into the wild. Over the years it has accumulated a number of alligators and one very large crocodile which are the lead actors in their educational seminars and tours….which leads us to Chris Gillette.
Chris is a professional alligator ‘wrestler’, snake handler, biologist, educator, photographer, diver, TV and Movie star and overall adventurer. He deals with all kinds of reptiles, but he also provides tours which will let you snorkel with sharks off Jupiter’s coast or swim with a 9’ alligator named Casper in Homestead. Chris’ shark expeditions are amazing, but I’ll save them for another time. It’s his expertise with alligators that is most impressive. He is the alligator handler at Everglades Holiday Park in Ft Lauderdale, a cast member on Animal Planet’s Gator Boys show and also works with the Everglades Outpost where his alligator tours take place. I first met Chris at a diving trade show where we discussed photography and then joined him on a great white shark diving expedition in Mexico. Since then I have followed his career with interest and recently took him up on his invitation to take some photos of ‘Casper’. Chris conducts his up close and personal alligator tours in Everglades Outpost’s 30,000 gallon gator pool. The water is changed weekly and is always crystal clear during his sessions. It’s a great photo opportunity for the professional or armature with a GoPro. We met at Everglades Outpost at 10 am and there were 4 of us who wanted to get in the pool with Casper. Chris gave us an excellent briefing of what to do and what not to do in the water. The pool is not very deep so you can walk around comfortable…you don’t even need a snorkel. Chris brings one person in the pool at a time and maneuvers Casper around to pose for photos and provide an amazing wildlife encounter. If you wish, Chris will take photos of you while in the water. Casper is an amazing creature – nine feet long and almost 300 lbs, but as calm and gentile as a puppy. He actually responds to Chris’ verbal command to come to him, which is incredible. At one point I think Casper’s nose was about 2” from my camera! I enjoyed this adventure immensely and highly recommend it to anyone who loves the thrill of South Florida’s wildlife… and it’s a lot better than finding a gator in your front yard. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org to join him on a swim with Casper.