Mike Sturgill sat in his Naples, Fla., souvenir shop stroking his pet named “Bobby.” With the exception of an occasional eye blink, Bobby stood still and I swear, I saw contentment on his face. If he were a cat, he’d be purring.
“Would you like to hug him?” Sturgill, aka “Gatorman Mike,” asked as the 4-year-old, and 4-foot long alligator lazily rested.
Hugging is good for mental and physical health and Gatorman Mike is in the businesses of sharing hugs in the Florida Everglades. Not the warm fuzzy kind but those akin to hugging a very long, slightly heavy breathing exotic purse. For a $5 gratuity, visitors who stop at this roadside attraction located next to a defunct gas station just before the entrance to Collier Seminole State Park, can hug an alligator and have their photo taken in three different poses.
Would I Like to Hug a Gator? Absolutely!
A Velcro band was placed around Bobby’s mouth just in case he decided to nip, although when I held him, he wasn’t aggressive at all. He did wiggle quite a bit between photo poses and whipped his tail as Gatorman held him. I have to admit, I was a little concerned and wondered if Bobby was into it as much as I. Hmm. I’m guessing “no.”
Strike a Pose!
The first photo is the monster head pose. The gator’s head is held in front and close to the camera to give the impression he’s huge. The second pose is holding him by the lower end of his neck and his tail. The final pose is holding him like a baby. I draped a towel over my shoulder, just in case he peed.
As soon as Bobby was handed over for a final time, his head rested on my shoulder and almost immediately he wrapped his legs around me soaking up my body heat. I suspect he was about 30 pounds of lean gator muscle.
After the photo session, Gatorman brought out an alligator in training named Turbo and showed and provided an educational overview about various functions of the animal, including getting up close to its tongue, ears and nostrils. I’ve lived in Everglades National Park for a few years and his presentation was the most thorough I’ve ever heard.
What happens to the gators once they are too big for hugging? They are retired to captive environments.
Gator Hugging in a Mall?
Sturgill and his family moved to Southwest Florida in 1997 from West Virginia. He had a goal of running an airboat operation through the Everglades and got acquainted with the reptiles including working at Wooten’s Airboat Tour. Four years ago, he began offering gator hugging.
Alligator hugging fits as an old Florida roadside attraction but if you were strolling from boutique shop to restaurant, would you hug a gator? Sturgill is trying to expand alligator hugging into Tin City, a shopping, dining and entertainment district in Naples, yet some elected officials and animal rights advocates aren’t too keen on the idea. (Actually, don’t think they accept the act at all.) He’s attended a couple of council meetings and has one more toward the end of September when elected officials will determine yea or nay to hugging a gator.
If gator hugging is allowed in Tin City, Gatorman Mike told me he plans on continuing the service in the original location, too.
Hugging is allowed but no kissing gators on the lips. Why? Because they don’t have lips.
Hug an Alligator
Located next to a gas station near the entrance to Collier Seminole State Park
20200 E. Tamiami Trail (near San Marco Road)
Naples, Fla. (Eastern Collier County)
Fee: $5 gratuity