It's no crock, gator hugs nearing reality in Naples

7:41 AM, Oct 3, 2011   |    comments
Mike Sturgill, aka “Gatorman Mike” holds his pet alligator, Baby Bobby. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is urging the Naples City Council to reconsider its vote allowing Sturgill to open an exhibit in the city to allow people to hug Bobby and have their pictures taken with him. / Special to
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  • The clock is ticking.

    If no city council member requests a revote by Monday morning a controversial alligator exhibit will open in a few weeks at a popular Naples tourist destination.

    All the fuss is over Mike Sturgill and his unique way of handling alligators, one of Southwest Florida's most fearsome critters: He hugs them.

    "This guy loves hugs," said Sturgill, 57, as he held 4-foot, 4-year-old "Baby Bobby" in his arms. He raised the alligator from a hatchling.

    Sturgill wants Naples tourists to share the experience of hugging Bobby, for $5 each, and his city-approved attraction has animal lovers in an uproar in Southwest Florida and around the globe.

    This is the city that once declared war on Muscovy ducks for invading swimming pools, tackled the crucial issue of banning Frisbees on the beach and ticketed girls for running a lemonade stand.

    "It's part of the annual silliness from the long, hot summer," local resident Nancy Payton said.

    The ruckus began after Sept. 21, when the City Council gave Sturgill, also known as "Gatorman Mike," permission to bring Baby Bobby to Tin City, a popular shopping and dining center on Naples Bay. Visitors will be allowed to hug the gator and have their picture taken with him as they have for the past three years at Alligator Adventures, on the fringe of the Everglades. Bobby wears a padded velcro muzzle to ensure tourists' safety while they hold him and listen to lectures about alligators and their habitat.

    The international animal rights group People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals soon posted an "action alert" on its web page, urging people to demand a revote by reminding city leaders "that cruelty is not culture and should not be tolerated."

    Mayor Bill Barnett and council members have received emails from all over the U.S., Canada and Europe. "It is just CRUEL," Naples native Amanda Barton wrote.
    "I don't know that I've ever gotten so many emails about anything before," said Councilman Gary Price, who voted for Sturgill.

    Only a member of the voting majority can ask for a revote. "I don't see that happening," Barnett said.

    "We represent the city, not the United Kingdom, Poland or God knows where else." he said. The issue was given a hearing, he said. before the council voted to let Sturgill open at Tin City.

    Such exhibitions, PETA said, are harmful. "Muzzling them, having cameras flashing and transporting them in crates. It's frightening and compromising their quality of life," spokeswoman Kristin Simon said.

    But Sturgill said his alligators are tame because they were bred on alligator farms. He said they aren't as fierce of the alligator that recently bit off the leg of his neighbor, Margaret Webb, 90, who was released Friday from the hospital.

    "When you raise them from hatchlings, they bond with you," Sturgill said. If he hadn't bought Bobby, he said, Bobby could be a designer belt, boots or handbag by now.

    Sturgill said Bobby isn't crated, but rides in the back of his minivan on a quilt and gator-green pillows. "If it were up to him, he'd ride in the front seat and look out the window."

    In a year or two, Bobby will be too big to be held and he'll join three other retirees at Alligator Adventures, Sturgill said. "Then Tiny Turbo will take over for Bobby."

    The state allows such exhibitions and Sturgill has a state license but will have to get another permit for his Naples exhibit, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro said.

    However, local Audubon Society spokesman Brad Cornell agrees with PETA that such exhibits aren't good. "It sends the wrong message: getting too close to an animal with lots of teeth."

    On the other hand, Franklin Adams, a Florida Wildlife Federation board member, said: "I don't see that he's really hurting anything. I just don't think it's that big of an issue."

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