GOLDEN GATE ESTATES — For almost 30 years, alligator trapper Dave Regel was the man to call when one of the creatures crept unwelcome into a Collier County neighborhood.
In recent months, though, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been beefing up its platoon of alligator removal contractors, adding five in Collier County alone to try to improve response times to alligator complaints but rubbing veteran alligator trappers like Regel the wrong way.
Regel quit in May, and a crowd of like-minded alligator removal contractors showed up at a Conservation Commission meeting in Tampa this past week to complain about the way the agency is running its Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program — SNAP for short.
"When it comes to public safety, the fewer cooks in the kitchen the better," said Regel, 61, a former Publix meat cutter who had made catching nuisance alligators his only job.
The business isn't what it used to be. Trappers are paid $30 per alligator, as long as the $210,000 set aside each year to pay the trappers holds out. It hardly ever does, with trappers removing an average of 8,000 alligators each year.
At the same time, rising gas prices have made responding to Florida's nearly 13,000 nuisance alligator complaints each year a more costly undertaking.
Trappers' main compensation comes from selling the alligators to processors for meat and hide. That market has taken a hit, though. Farm-raised alligator skins have taken a bite out of the demand for wild hides. Depending on the size of the alligator, trappers can get from $10 a foot to $30 a foot.
Through Aug. 31, trappers had removed 153 nuisance alligators from Collier County. In Lee County, which still has just one removal contractor, 310 nuisance alligators were taken. The two-county harvest is about 9 percent above average.
Regel said he averaged between 200 and 250 alligator removals per year as a sole contractor in Collier County. SNAP coordinators told him they were going to cut his numbers in half when they added new part-time trappers.
He said his decision to quit wasn't about the money or less territory to cover but about the way SNAP was treating its most experienced trappers.
"I knew when I started I wasn't going to get rich," Regel said. "It was really something I loved doing. It really gave me a sense of giving back to my community and my state."
Collier County's new slate of trappers say they are under no illusions that their new gigs are going to be money-makers for them.
"The program is not set up to be a job," said specialty painting contractor Raymond Simonsen, 50, of Golden Gate Estates.
Foreign security contractor Adam Nicklos said he signed up with SNAP, in part, so he could hunt alligators year-round, not just during hunting season, and not have to win the alligator hunting permit lottery to do it. He lost the lottery three years in a row.
"I got into it as a hobby," said Nicklos, 33, of North Naples.
Trapper Beth Hamm said having multiple contractors in Collier County will make for more efficient responses to complaints, not confusion as Regel said will happen with overlapping contractors.
"We're a big county and we work really well together," said Hamm, 46, of Golden Gate Estates.
As for Regel, he's fixing up alligator heads he has collected over the years and trying to sell them for a few extra bucks while he looks for a new job.