The Gator Couple
Mike and Joan Sturgill both have dedicated ...
IF YOU GO
Wooten’s Everglades Adventures
* When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, last airboat ride at 4:30 p.m.
* Where: 35 miles south of Naples on U.S. 41 in Ochopee
* Cost including tax: $8.48 for adults for the animal exhibits, $6.36 for kids; $25.44 for adults for swamp buggy or airboat ride, $21.20 for kids
* Information: 695-2781, www.wootenseverglades.com
Texaco Alligator Exhibit
* When: Wednesday through Monday, Nov. 25-30, 2009, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
* Where: Texaco gas station 17 miles south of Naples on U.S. 41, just past San Marco Road and the Iron Rhino Saloon
* Cost: Tips only
* Information: 394-4798
With 1.25 million alligators in Florida, anywhere there’s water, there might be an alligator.
To keep yourself safe, just use common sense, says Lindsey Horde, an alligator expert with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“You should never approach an alligator, just enjoy it from a distance and take some pictures,” Horde says. “It’s very rare for an alligator to bite somebody, as long as people avoid them.”
Maintain a safe distance, swim only in designated swimming areas and keep your pets away from the water’s edge, Horde advises. Don’t feed alligators, either, because that can make them more likely to attack. Between 1948 and 2004, the commission documented 242 unprovoked alligator attacks on humans, 15 of which were fatal.
Alligators grow up to 14 feet long and 1,000 pounds. They nest in late June to early July and hatch in late August to early September.
It takes between 10 and 15 years for them to reach sexual maturity at about 6 feet long. They can live for about 30 to 35 years, but their actual life expectancy is much shorter.
Big alligators eat little alligators, which is one way nature controls the alligator population, Horde says.
Alligators are “opportunistic feeders,” so they feed on whatever is abundant to them, including fish, wading birds, hogs, raccoons and turtles.
They are most active at dusk and dawn and throughout the night, but they also eat during the day. How often they eat depends on the temperature of their environment, because it affects their metabolism, and the size of their meals.
It’s an urban legend that alligators can run fast and you should zig-zag if they chase you, Horde says, because they don’t chase prey on land — they’re aquatic.
If they’re on land they’re not hunting, but moving from one body of water to another.
“They do lunge out of the water for a short distance to catch prey,” he says.
At one time, alligators were on the endangered species list, but now their population is stable and there is an alligator hunting season. The state also has a nuisance alligator program that removes alligators 4 feet and longer from golf courses, developments and anywhere else where they are too close to human populations. Those alligators are killed by the trappers and sold for meat and hides.
Between 7,000 and 10,000 nuisance alligators are removed each year in the state.
EVERGLADES — Joan Sturgill and Charlie the alligator battled for about two months before they made their peace.
Charlie permanently damaged her knee with his jaws, nearly broke her leg with his tail and put his teeth through her hand. But ask her if it was worth it and Joan, 52, will say yes.
Working with alligators has changed Joan’s life.
She and her husband, Mike, 55, moved to the Everglades from West Virginia. They live in Jerome, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town with just six homes on State Road 29. She spends her days teaching tourists about alligators at Wooten’s Everglades Adventures in Ochopee and he does the same at his alligator exhibit at the Texaco gas station next to the Iron Rhino Saloon on U.S. 41.
At night, they compare tips, trade stories and take care of the five alligators that live in their backyard: C.W., Nelly, Harvey, Little Leroy and Baby Bobby.
* * *
“Hi folks, would you like to hold an alligator?” Joan says to two men who approach the fence at her alligator pen at the back of Wooten’s. It’s her usual opening line, and her words are shaped by a West Virginia twang. The men take one look at 200-pound, 8-foot-long Charlie basking in the sun and shake their heads.
“Not Charlie — you can’t pick him up. I mean Fred here,” she says, smiling and pointing to Fred, a 30-pound, 3 1/2-foot-long gator in a silver metal trough. They lean over the fence separating them from Joan and the gators and peek in.
“I wouldn’t want to touch the other one,” says Mike Rukujzo, 45, motioning to Charlie, whose thick, heavy body sprawls on the sand that covers the pen’s floor.
Joan laughs. “Well sir, I can open that gator’s mouth and put my hand in there,” she says.
“No way!” he replies.
“Oh, well, now that’s a challenge,” Joan says.
She straddles Charlie, one foot on either side of his body.
“Come on Charlie, lets show ‘em. Come on baby, are you ready?”
Joan is stocky and strong, but she’s only 4 feet 11 inches and Charlie weighs about 70 pounds more than she does. Today, she’s wearing dark jeans, a pink Wooten’s button-up shirt, sneakers and sunglasses, and the wind blows her shoulder-length blond hair around her face as she leans forward and touches Charlie’s nose with one hand.
Joan croons to the gator like he’s a puppy and slowly, carefully, lifts his top jaw. The bottom jaw falls open, revealing Charlie’s whitish pink palate, tongue and teeth. Mike and his friend, Eddie Boliaux, 41, stare. Their mouths might as well be open, too.
Joan explains that Charlie has 80 razor-sharp teeth, and that he can bite down with 1,500 pounds per square inch but doesn’t have much force to open his mouth if you hold it closed. This is the alligator speech Joan does each time someone stops by her exhibit.
Charlie’s tongue is a trigger and if you touch that tongue those jaws snap shut, she says. She makes her other hand into a fist and puts it between his jaws. The men snap pictures.
A few minutes later, Joan convinces them that holding Fred isn’t such a scary prospect. She lifts the younger, smaller gator out of his tub of water, cradling him against her belly, legs out. She towels him off, puts a rubber band around his mouth and hands him over the fence to each man in turn, showing them how to hold him under his tail and his chest area.
“There you go. It’s amazing how soft they are underneath, right?” she says. The men snap photos and hand Fred back.
“I think she’s awesome,” says Mike, who is visiting from Chicago.
Eddie agrees: “She’s a lot bolder than I am.”
* * *
“I kid and call her Jumpin’ Joan,” says Joan’s husband, Mike, sitting on a chair with an alligator in his lap. He’s wearing a shirt that says “Gatorman Mike.”
“When I started working at Wooten’s she came back in there, I handed her an alligator and she was a little jumpy,” he smiles beneath his mustache, words twangy just like Joan’s.
Joan has been doing the show for almost three years now, Mike says. He’s proud of her. It took her some time to get comfortable with alligators, but she’s good at it.
“They’re not near as mean as people think they are, right Leroy?” he says, talking to the 4.5-foot-long, 40-pound alligator in his lap. His name is Little Leroy and he rests in Mike’s lap just as if he were on the bank of a pond. He is one of five gators that Mike and Joan keep at their house.
Mike spends his days with their alligators at the Texaco gas station on U.S. 41 East, about 17 miles southeast of Naples. Tour groups visit and people stop to see the alligators after getting gas.
“Usually when you see them on TV they’re eating somebody, but they’re more afraid of us than we are of them,” says Mike, who has been fascinated by them since he was a kid. “It’s probably good that they have that reputation, because then people leave them alone.”
When Mike and Joan moved to Florida the first time in 1997, Mike thought he’d become an airboat captain. But a man talked him into getting into a pit with an 8-foot alligator named Nancy, and he’s been hooked ever since.
A young couple pull up to a gas pump in their car and catch sight of Mike and Leroy.
“Hi there, would you folks like to hug and hold this alligator?” Mike says.
Matthew Desrochers, 36, and his wife Danielle, 33, eye Leroy nervously. Matthew decides to go for it, and Danielle snaps photos.
Mike drapes Leroy over Matthew’s arms, and then over his shoulder the way you burp a baby. Next Mike, like Joan, tells them about the animal. They drop a tip in his jar, and he wishes them a good trip.
If nobody’s around, Mike reads Popular Science, which he has a subscription to, or writes country songs. He has a tape recorder and he recorded himself singing his songs “Hillbilly alligator man” and “Three spoiled-rotten alligators.”
Sometimes, he falls asleep with an alligator in his lap.
* * *
When there’s a lull in visitors at Wooten’s, Joan steps out of the alligator pen, washes her hands and picks up one of her crochet projects — usually an afghan or an Indian doll.
She loves her alligators like most people love their pets, she says. If she could take Charlie home, she would.
“But they are a wild animal, that’s one thing I always stress to people,” Joan says. “It’s not safe to have them as a pet unless you know how to work with them, and you’re not allowed to keep them unless you have a permit and use them for teaching purposes.”
Mike and Joan have a valid permit to possess and exhibit alligators, says Gabriella Ferraro, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
“They’re some of our best customers,” she adds.
Alligators have changed Joan’s life. In 2001, she was badly burned in a fire in West Virginia. Before, Joan was a stay-at-home mom who didn’t leave the house very often. After, her skin healed and her hair grew back, but she sunk deep into herself.
“That really put me into a shell,” she says. “I wouldn’t go out, I was so shy I couldn’t talk to people. But coming back here and doing this, this is what brought me out of depression and pulled me out of that shell. ... When I started working with gators I realized there was a life out there.”
She lifts her sleeve to show the scar from a skin graft on her arm. You’d never know unless she told you.
When Joan decided to be an alligator handler, Mike thought it was a great idea. She already worked at Wooten’s in the store, and she asked the owner, Gene Wooten, for the job. He said yes.
“I really don’t know if there is another female alligator handler anywhere else, but I know we’ve never had one,” says Wooten, whose father started the business in 1953. “She’s very good.”
A lot of customers tell Joan that she’s brave to work with alligators, but some women have told her that it’s not a woman’s place to be in a pen. She stands up to them, just like she stood up to men who said she couldn’t do what she does.
“Believe me, I got a lot of hassle from the boys out here,” she says. “They had some bets on the side, saying I wouldn’t make it one month, then six months. Now they brag about it. ‘Hey, we’ve got a girl back there with the gators,’ they say.”
The airboat captains check on her each time they leave with a tour. They zoom by with a noise like an airplane taking off, raising their arm as they go by her exhibit. She raises her arm in return to let them know she’s safe.
* * *
Mike’s phone beeps on the wooden table next to his chair and he eases Leroy’s body up to free his hand to answer the call. The alligator stretches across Mike’s lap as he speaks into the phone, his head just inches from the animal’s jaws.
“There’s mama gator calling,” Mike says. “Hello Joan.”
“Hi Mike, how’s it going so far?” Joan’s voice comes from the phone’s speaker.
“I’ve made $10 so far,” Mike says.
“Oh me too,” she says.
“We’re neck ‘n’ neck,” he says.
“But you’re not going to beat me!” she counters. They laugh and say their “love yous” and “goodbyes.” They’ve been together almost 30 years and have six kids and nine grandkids.
“We like to have a little competition — who makes the most tips,” Mike says, putting the phone down and petting Leroy’s back again. “She usually beats me.”