NAPLES — It was a close call for “Gatorman Mike” as Naples City Council nearly voted Wednesday morning against his plan to sell photographs of tourists hugging alligators in Tin City.
Local businessman Mike Sturgill — known around Southwest Florida as “Gatorman Mike” — sought a conditional use permit, which hinged on whether council found his idea would be a cultural use based on city code.
Initially, four of the seven members of council were leaning toward voting against Sturgill’s business plan in that location, according to council members’ initial comments.
The turning point was when Gary Price said: “I changed my mind.”
“I’m always concerned for how something is going to affect the existing businesses,” Price said of his initial thinking. “Then, I got over the safety and parking concerns.”
Price said his vote changed after listening to all the comments made by council, city employees, public speakers and Sturgill.
Sturgill, 57, has a similar business in eastern Collier County on U.S. 41.
He plans to offer alligator hugs, along with an educational experience about gators and a chance to purchase $5 photographs with them at both locations.
The conditional use permit is required in Tin City because animal exhibits aren’t explicitly allowed in the code, city officials said.
“I feel this is reflective of the culture that Tin City projects-- which is Old Florida,” Finlay said.
Kathryn Taubert, a former professional wild animal trainer and animal activist, said the alligator hug business plan was inappropriate. Taubert, a Fort Myers resident, urged council to decline the permit to protect the animals.
“It borders on an exploitation similar to abuse,” Taubert said. “Alligators traveling 80 miles each day, being kept in concrete crates, wearing a muzzle, being picked up by strangers with flash photography in their faces all day long... It’s not educational because it’s not natural alligator behavior,” she said.
Sturgill sat on the edge of his seat throughout discussions and eagerly answered questions off the cuff posed by Saad and other council members.
Sturgill’s family has been offering alligator hugs and photos since 1997 without any injuries, he said. He uses muzzles because they are required, but uses his own handmade Velcro muzzles because it’s soft and poses no harm to the animals.
“Alligators love hugs, especially in the winter time. They’re cold blooded animals. They’re like ‘aaaaah’,” Sturgill said, hugging an imaginary alligator as he stood before council.
Taubert wasn’t convinced.
“This is very near to my heart,” the former southeast Texas resident said after council’s vote. “I grew up with my own alligators, in a lake, in my backyard. I can assure you, they do no want to be hugged,” she said.
Sturgill is ready to open up for business as soon as Oct. 1. The space he initially proposed renting in Tin City is no longer available. He’s hoping now to be in the main building, building 1, with alligator tracks leading to his store, he said.