COLLIER COUNTY — T-shirts, trinkets, art — and alligator hugs?
Local businessman Mike Sturgill — known around Southwest Florida as "Gatorman Mike" — is proposing selling photographs of tourists holding and hugging alligators at Tin City in Naples.
There is nothing in city code that says Sturgill can’t offer alligator hugs. In fact, Naples City Planner Adam Benigni said there is nothing in the city code of ordinances that addresses animal exhibits at all.
That’s why Sturgill, 57, will need City Council approval for a conditional use permit to offer alligator hugs, along with an educational experience about gators and a chance to purchase $5 photographs with them.
Sturgill first needs the city’s planning board to recommend approval to council in a meeting at 8:30 a.m. this morning at City Hall.
“I’m hoping that some or all of them will get themselves a genuine gator hug,” Sturgill said of the board members.
He currently has a similar business on U.S. 41 east of San Marco Road near a Texaco gas station.
Sturgill and his wife Joan — dubbed "Mama Gator" — plan to keep that exhibit along with the new location in shop 305 of building 3 in Tin City, 1200 Fifth Ave. S.
Naples planning department staff have recommended approval of the conditional use permit for the commercial waterfront location. So far they’ve only received one phone call asking questions about the plan after the city sent all 445 property owners within 500 feet of Tin City a letter on July 29 notifying them that Sturgill proposed an animal exhibit there, staff said.
Tin City business owners, renters, visitors and employees expressed few concerns over the proposal, and most said they thought it might attract more business.
Monica Heise, owner of Tropical Cargo, warmed up to the idea after initial concerns over T-shirt sales competition.
“We could use an attraction,” she said.
There was a point when Sturgill was discouraged with what seemed a lengthy government process. However, his optimism returned when he heard staff recommended approval of the conditional use permit in the commercial waterfront district.
“I thought to myself, oh my God, I’m just an old hillbilly who loves teaching folks about alligators,” Sturgill said.
It took weeks to get to the pivotal planning board meeting. The planning board’s recommendation will then be considered by City Council at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 21.
Sturgill plans to have two alligators at the shop — Baby Bobby and Tiny Turbo — which will come home with him each night in his hour-long commute back to Jerome, in eastern Collier County, where he also has two other larger alligator pets.
“They’re raised with a lot of affection,” Sturgill said of the gators he’s had since hatchlings.
“We’ll still use the Velcro muzzle so no one gets freaked out,” Sturgill said. “People who don’t know about them have a fear, and they should with wild ones. But you can’t get Baby Bobby to bite you.”
Sturgill stroked Baby Bobby’s head recently while giving tourists a brief education on alligators at his shop in eastern Collier County.
“But you can’t give him a kiss. You know why?” the pony-tailed alligator handler asked with a grin.
“Because they don’t have lips,” Sturgill said.
Sturgill hummed his own tune as he hugged Baby Bobby, a 4-foot gator that looked to be grinning as his long jaw and snout rested on his handler’s shoulder.
Sturgill has worked with alligators since 1997 beginning in Everglades City before opening his own business about four years ago.
“Once you start working with alligators, you realize they’re not the mindless, man-eating animals people think they are,” he said.
Sturgill is licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. His gators are to be behind a 5-foot tall barrier when not held by a handler.
Many people are already familiar with Sturgill’s location on U.S. 41 near San Marco Road.
“I’ve held his gators,” said Sara Badder, a manager at Riverwalk Restaurant. “I think (Sturgill) is pretty well-trained.”
“A lot of the stores in here are kind of the same — T-shirts and trinkets,” Badder said. “It would bring something different to Tin City.”
A clerk at the Jungle Fever store agreed.
“That gator out there,” said Cassie Weyandt as she pointed to a gator statue, “it gets so much action and it’s fake.”
If people are interested in getting their photos taken with an alligator statue, they’d surely pay the $5 plus tip Sturgill plans to charge for a hug and photo with a live alligator, Weyandt said.
Even the skeptics didn’t anticipate much harm.
“I don’t think I’d be a candidate to hug an alligator,” said Vin DePasquale, owner of Riverwalk and the Dock Restaurant. “But some people might. So, well, why not?”
“I don’t think they’ll cause a concern,” he said. “Unless they get loose and start coming down the hallway.”