Hug a pet ... alligator

If you’ve ever found yourself looking for hugs in all the wrong places, then you’ve obviously never met Mike Sturgill and his two adorable pet hugables — Harvey and Leroy.

Harvey, a 60-pound, six-foot, red-blooded Florida gator, and Leroy, his 35-pound, three-foot lovable sidekick, are guaranteed to make you forget about warm and fuzzy. But what the two leathery, cold-blooded buddies can do is immediately grab your attention.

Sturgill, also known as Gatorman Mike, his wife, Joan, and their two youngest kids moved down to Florida from West Virginia back in 1997 and Mike discovered he had a new life’s calling — alligators.

“We originally wanted to live in the Everglades and drive airboats, Mike recalls. “But once I got involved with alligators, I never did learn how to drive an airboat. But I got two sons who drive ‘em now.”

Mike’s first job in Florida was with an airboat tour company in Everglades City doing carpenter work and working as a maid on one of the boats.

Since he was a carpenter by trade, Mike was building some snake pens one day when he noticed an alligator show going on at the same time.

“There were two local boys doing the show at the time — one of them was named Danny Daniels and the other was Steve Brown — and they asked me if I’d be interested in doing alligator shows by working on their days off,” Sturgill explains. “So, they basically taught me and I was just fascinated by alligators anyway.

“They worked with an alligator — about a nine-footer named Nacy,” Sturgill continues. “Part of the show was they’d grab Nancy by the tail and drag her up this ramp they had. Then they’d pet her down her back and hold her jaws closed. That was to get her settled down.

“The first time you ever do that, your heart’s going about 200 miles an hour. So I did all that, and those guys were just crackin’ up.

All they kept on saying was, ‘Don’t let go, don’t let go!’ ”

For the next three minutes, Mike got the ride of his life as Nancy threw him all over the lot.

“But I wouldn’t let go,” he says proudly.

He then proceeded to open her jaw, show the crowd her 80 teeth, held the skin underneath, and the waterproof valve all alligators have in their mouths.

“The first time I did that, I asked everybody if they could see in there and they said yes, so I let it close and said, ‘Good because I ain’t doing it again.’ ”

After learning gator wrangling with Nancy, Mike performed his own shows for the next six months before he heard that Wooten Air Boat Tours needed an alligator man. Mike took the job and a new partner named Jumper.

“Jumper deserved his name, I can tell you,” Mike says. “He was a good-sized six-footer and weighed about 125 pounds. He liked to jump straight up and get you. One week after teaming up with him I got my first bite.

“He jumped up one day and put a big hole in my left thumb. After that, I started thinking about whether I wanted to do this for a living or not.”

Mike, however, continued to work with Jumper for the next four months before realizing one thing: the more you work with a certain alligator, the more they lose their fear and actually become kind of lazy.

“Once they’re not afraid of you anymore, they just kinda lay around,” he explains. “So, I went and caught another one out of the pen — about an eight-footer that I named Elizabeth. I worked with her for a couple of years and she was a good gator until she put 28 stitiches in my left hand.

“I was reaching down to open up her left ear flap — and I had done this a couple hundred times — and well, for some reason that day she wasn’t in the mood for it and she reached up and grabbed my hand. She actually just gave me a quick nip and let me go. I was very lucky.”

Mike keeps nine alligator of his own at home in Jerome, Fla. Owning alligators requires a permit, which also entitles him show up to 10 at a time.

Harvey and Leroy — Mike’s two prized gators — were bought at an alligator farm in Palmdel, Fla. in 2000. Harvey is about a foot-and-a-half long and cost $50. Mike bought Leroy as a hatchling for $35. Together, the three have been best buds ever since.

“They’re really good gators and I’ve never had an accident with them and the public,” Mike says.

To pass the day, Mike grabs Leroy, puts him in his lap and the two watch the traffic drive by along on U.S. 41.

“We just work for tips and this is a good location,” Mike says. He is located at a Texaco station, just a couple of 100 feet south of the State route 592 and U.S. 41 intersection. “People see us out there and just stop in out of curiosity.”

As did Tim Dupont — a yearly visitor to Marco Island from Rhode Island.

Showing no trepidation whatsoever, Dupont matter-of-factly held and petted first Harvey, then Leroy. Both gators — with their respective jaws held closed by an inch-thick rubber band-like device — took to his gentle touch immediately by closing their eyes in a dream-like trance.

“Wow,” Dupont exclaimed after Mike put the two gators back in their pen. “They were cold and leathery, but boy, that was the first time I ever did anything like that. There aren’t any alligators in Rhode Island, so this was a first for me.”

Mike got a kick oput of it as well.

“I love to see the looks on peoples’ faces when they first touch a gator and get to experience them up close,” he said. “They’re really not as bad as a lot of people think.”

So, the next time you find yourself traveling the south end of U.S. 41 and need a hug, take a look for Mike, Leroy and Harvey. They’ll be there and looking for you.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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