Gator Girl

I first met Chris Gillette in January 2014 at Everglades Holiday Park.  EHP is outside of Fort Lauderdale at the edge of the Everglades where they offer airboat rides and alligator shows.  I had found out about this place because of a tv show called the “Gator Boys” on Animal Plant back in 2012.

These young men and women went out and rescued nuisance gators in Miami/Dade County Florida. These were no kill trappers and brought the gators back to EHP or to the Everglades Outpost where these gators lived out their lives.

FWC – Florida Wildlife Commission hires trappers to remove nuisance gators.  I say they hire them, but they do not pay them.  Trappers receive payment when they remove a gator by selling their meat and hide.  There are not a lot of “no kill trappers” because there is no payment for their time to go remove a gator.  If you ever watched the show, Paul one of the trappers, always kissed the gator when he caught it.

I was completely obsessed with the show so bless my poor husbands’ heart we went there while waiting to go out on a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale back in 2014. We rented a car to go for an airboat ride and see the gator show. Low and behold the day we were there (January 28, 2014 Facebook remembers these things) they were shooting an episode.  Double exciting!

Chris Gillette was performing the gator show that day. I got to hold “Snappy” the baby 3’ alligator and I got to have my picture taken with Chris.  Chris talked in his show about his passion for reptiles, poisonous snakes, alligator wrestling and photography. With over 15 years’ experience handling reptiles and snakes, he also has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences from the University of Florida. The passion he shows to educate people about these creatures can be seen and heard when you talk to him.  Chris has an Instagram and Facebook page that I started following his photography and adventures almost 5 years ago.

This past February I saw a post from Chris about how he was trying to help raise money for the Everglades Outpost.  They are a 501c3 non-profit that is a wildlife refuge in Homestead Florida. What a unique way to raise money for this non-profit offer gator tours that you can take your own photos or Chris who is a professional photographer can do it for you.

Bob and Barbara’s story is unique on its own (George and I spoke to Bob) in how they started rescuing animals in South Florida, back in 1991. Everyone is a volunteer that works at the Outpost.  They are all there for the love of taking care of the animals they have rescued.

After I read Chris’s February post about the gator tours, I told George I wanted to swim with Casper the gator.   George never knows what kind of hair brained idea I might come up with, but he always supports me. Thank you, George.

All summer long I would see Chris posting the different times he would be offering the tour and it just reinforced that I really wanted to do it. Finally, this fall I emailed Chris wanting to get all the information and hoping that his schedule and mine would match.  Sure, enough he was going to be offering a tour while we were heading to the keys!  Sign me up!!!!!

When we got to the Everglades Outpost, there were panthers that somebody had owned and had all their claws removed. A Bengal tiger, baby cub lions, camel, zebra, wolf’s, birds, lizards, snakes, a HUGE crocodile plus more alligators beyond your imagination that call this place home. Bob said they probably take in 1000+ animals a year.  They rehabilitate and release what they can.

The pond that Casper and 5 other gators call home is 30,000 gallons of water that it replaced and cleaned every week.  Chris has been volunteering here for over 10 years. Being the alligator wrestler that he is, he would get into the pond with the gators and work with them.

One thing Chris explained is that gators, snakes etc. cannot be domesticated like dogs and cats, they can be habituated.  These reptiles are not like trained monkeys. He said so many gator attacks are because people feed the gators, so the gators then expect food when they see people or people flail in the water like an injured animal, so the gator will attack. It is their instinct.

These 6 gators are not threatened by people being in their pond, but they are curious and will get into the water sometimes with Chris and his tours.  Don’t get in the other pens with the other alligators and Don’t try this anywhere else in Florida!!!!

There was one other young man who is getting ready to go to college for marine biology and myself on today’s tour.  After our informational and safety talk, we each had 2 – 20 minutes tours in the water with just you, Chris and Casper.  There was one other gator who came to the side of the pond and laid his head on the edge “watching”. The rest of the other gators were to busy sunning themselves to even pay attention to us.

The young man went first while I went and put my wetsuit on. Once his 20 minutes was up it was my turn to get into the water.  I had to put the 2 weight belts on to try to sink below the surface to get pictures.  I had the underwater camera with me and George was on top taking pictures.  I hired Chris to take pictures of me also.  (Those pictures will be a separate post.)

One of the things that Chris said in the safety talk was don’t flail around because it could arouse the gators, so of course what did I immediately do, I start flailing because I can’t sink.  It has been 20 years since I went scuba diving and I don’t remember a thing about snorkeling, breathing or sinking. Chris said scuba was like a riding a bike – wrong!

Chris helped me across the pond to where Casper was at. I am fumbling around with the stupid camera. I am starting to panic inside not because there is a 250# 10’ gator 4’ away, I am panicking because I can’t figure out how to use the stupid mask and camera. Off goes the mask as I keep floating up even though I have on probably an extra 50# of weight on the belt.

Finally, I just decided to relax let George and Chris get the pictures and enjoy the experience. When my first 20 minutes was up, Chris suggested I get out of the wetsuit and see if I can sink in my next session with just my bathing suit on. Nope, 50# of weights and I still can’t sink – George says it is because I am full of hot air.

I was able to get somewhat under water. Casper swam over top of me somewhat. He swam right at me trying to get to his hidey spot under the one tree. I just stood still, and Chris guided him away and congratulated me for not panicking. Never once was I scared.  I would not ever do this kind of experience with anyone but Chris Gillette.

It was just an incredible experience that I had today. This is a new kind of ecotourism with the money going towards the greater good.  Helping animals that have been victimized by people. People who believe they should own a wild animal and then realize that wild animals need to stay wild and then don’t know what to with them.  Thank you, Everglades Outpost.

For lunch then we stopped at the little diner – Gator Grill –  just down from the Outpost and had gator fajitas.  Yes, even though I love that these guys are no kill, I still love to eat gator!!! Fried bites, jerky or tenderloins.  I love it!

If you are ever in South Florida stop for a day or two.  Visit 2 of our greatest National Parks – Key Biscayne and Everglades.  If you are camping, go to Flamingo Campground in the Everglades. 45 miles down into the Everglades where there is no light pollution and you can see the stars. Visit Everglades Holiday Park on Griffon Road outside of Fort Lauderdale and watch Chris or Paul do their gator show.  Then please stop at Everglades Outpost and help support their cause rescuing and rehabilitating wild animals.

ALL the photos taken by George




















About Amy Smith

Our business is family owned and operated by George & Amy Smith & Kim & Scott Smith (daughter & son-in-law) The Smith family - and our staff welcome you to come and visit with us while you are in the Mohican and Amish area of Ohio! Stay where you are treated like part of the family.
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