Episode 35 - The Gator Crusader, Alligators, Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, Music by Comin Home The Band
I interview Michael Womer, aka The Gator Crusader. Learn all about the most popular apex reptile in Florida, the Alligator. I also get in the pen with them for a few minutes. Very unsettling!
You’ll also learn about the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, an animal sanctuary in Palm Harbor that takes care of abandoned and neglected monkeys, apes, and orangutans (and more than a couple alligators). Located right next to the Pinellas Trail so you may have heard them!
This episode brought to you by Happiest Doulas! Save 5% off with promo code HAPPY5 at HappiestDoulas.com!
Transcript at the bottom of this page!
Suncoast Primate Sanctuary
Music by Coming Home The Band!
From the band: “We are based out of central FL, but play Tampa more than anywhere else. We cover a lot of ground with our music, FROM soft, pretty heart pullers to heavy rockin’ that borderlines metal. We play from our heart and strive to be as authentic as possible, on and off the stage. We are driven to share what comes through and are always on the lookout for new opportunities to do so. Thank you. ❤”
NYC Phone Booths
Manhattan only has 4 remaining phone booths.
Great Things Tampa Bay is hosted and produced by Kyle Sasser.
There was no paid advertising in this episode. All recommendations are given based on personal experiences.
Also featuring bumper music by Author:Oscar Woods Title:”Dont Sell It Dont Give It Away”.
Kyle: I love these gators like I do my child. I really do, and I also joke with her. I say, when I die, which when you work with gators could be any day now. When I die, I’m like, you were going to inherit a bunch of Star Wars figures, “X-Men Comics,” and a whole bunch of alligators.
Hey, everybody. This is Kyle Sasser with Great Things Tampa Bay and this is episode 35. This episode was pretty exciting to record. I got to tell you, I’ve been a long-time native to the Tampa Bay Area. And on this episode, you’re going to hear me getting closer to an alligator than I have ever been before. So, we’re interviewing the Gator Crusader. So, let’s get into it.
This is Kyle Sasser with the Great Things Tampa Bay, and I’m here with a bit of a character. And we are at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary up in Palm Harbor, right?
Kyle: All right, cool. And I’m going to give you a chance to let you introduce yourself.
Michael: Hey. My name is Michael Womer, but most people call me the gator crusader. I love alligators, and I basically have kind of dedicated my entire life crusading around, trying to get other people to like them, love them. Sometimes I do really outrageous things with alligators and people say, “Why do you do that?” Kind of look down on that, but my whole goal is if you see something I do with the gator, if you like a gator even 1% more than before I started, then I did my job. My whole goal is to get you to like, maybe even love alligators.
Kyle: So, what you’re saying is, do you like to be called like gator wrestlers, gator wranglers?
Michael: I used to like the gator wrestling term, but now, it has kind of a negative connotation. So, I go more with gator trainer because I used to actually do the jumping on the back and prying the mouth open. And I never really like the fact that you were kind of constraining the animal. So, I’ve moved from sitting on their back to just doing training and its funny back when we used to do the gator wrestling. I would get bit all the time because, you know, we’re jumping on the animal prime. His mouth’s open. They’re like, “Leave me alone.”
Since I have switched and said, “I don’t want to do wrestling anymore. I just want to train them,” I do “more dangerous things.” Like, I’ll actually put a hotdog in my mouth and let a gator bite it out from my lips. I’ll swim in the water, but since I’ve stopped wrestling, I actually haven’t even gotten bit. I say that now, wait till at the end of the day, but…
Kyle: We’ve still got a few hours a day like here.
Michael: So far so good.
Kyle: All right. So, we are here at the Suncoast Primate…
Kyle: Sanctuary. So, we’re here at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary and I’m here with the gator crusader, and your name is?
Michael: My name is Michael Womer. A lot of people have trouble with the Womer part. Think of just the word, “Homer,” but put a W instead. In fact, here’s a fun fact. My name was almost Homer, Gomer, Womer.
Kyle: That’s pretty good.
Michael: Which would actually fit my personality a little bit better. Like my mom always says, “I’m so glad I didn’t name you that.” And I always say, “Mom, that would have fit my character so much better.”
Kyle: Yeah. You definitely seem like a serious individual, like a banker type.
Michael: Exactly. Somebody once said, they said, “You’re like Ace Ventura come to life.” Because they’re like, “Most animal people are very serious about, here is the epiglottical valve and…” And they’re like, “You take it more the comedy way.” And I’m just like, “That’s more of my personality.” So, I feel like if I can make the animals more fun, I might be able to reach some more people that normally wouldn’t want to watch, something boring about animals.
Kyle: All right. So, tell us a little bit about the sanctuary here. How long it’s been here and what the mission is, and all that good stuff.
Michael: Cool. We are at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary. It’s on Alternate 19 in Palm Harbor, Florida. A lot of people don’t realize it’s there. They don’t have a lot of signage. They take most of the money to take care of the animals. So, they don’t really put a lot of money into advertising and signage. They’d rather use it to care for the cool creatures here, but it’s been around for 75 years. They’ve taken animals that have no other place to go. Sometimes there will be an animal in a pack at the zoo. The pack decides to reject the certain animal. The zoo doesn’t know what to do so they bring it here.
Somebody has a pet, chimp. They think it’s cool. They think it’s fun until it starts flinging poo all around the house and trying to bite them. Then they’re like, “We don’t want this thing.” A lot of animals that were used in medical research that were going to be killed, most of the gators here were from a farm where they were going to be killed. So, almost every animal has been saved from death. So, it is a sanctuary where they protect and take care of animals, save their lives.
Kyle: And like looking around here, so, we’re standing here by the alligator pin and there’s one, two, three, four, five, six alligators staring at you intently.
Michael: They actually do recognize my voice. So, like, “Oh, that’s the guy that feeds me.” And that’s what does make an alligator so dangerous. Once they’re fed, they just associate you with food. So, they’re like, “Oh, the food guy is here.”
Kyle: And looking around, I see monkeys. What’s the guy with the red ass over there?
Michael: Oh, baboon. We’ve got a baboon. We’ve got a big orangutan like, “Jungle Book.” The guy like, “Wooh-wooh, I want to be like you.” King Louie. It’s funny because a lot of times when I say orangutan people are like, “Huh?” But then when I say, “The thing from the Jungle Book.” Everyone was like, “Oh, okay, okay. Now, I get it.”
Kyle: Like, I loved that guy.
Michael: Exactly. So, we’ve got those guys. We have a lot of different types of birds. We’ve got a couple tortoises. There’s even a few goats. A lot of macaques, which are smaller little primates. It’s mostly primates and alligators. Those are the two main things.
Kyle: You just told me that if you’re riding the Pinellas Trail and you’re hearing a lot of monkey’s screaming and doing monkey things, this is the place.
Michael: Yes, exactly. Our property backs up right on to the Pinellas Trail, but there’s a lot of trees so you can’t really see the chimps. So, it is very conceivable. You’d be having a nice little bike ride, la, la, la, and all of a sudden from the trees you hear, “Ah, ah.” There’s chimps, screaming orangutans calling, and I can always just imagine you’d be like, “What in the heck is that?”
Kyle: You might be hearing the wildlife in the background. It’s just part of the charm of Great Things Tampa Bay.
Michael: There you go. Exactly. What could be greater than doing a podcast in the jungle with chimps all around?
Kyle: Exactly. It’s awesome. So, this is your first gator rodeo as it was. You do have some experience in the arena?
Michael: Exactly. I’ve been technically working with alligators professionally for 26 years. So, over a quarter of a century I’m working with alligators. That makes me sad, so old. It’s so funny, but I’ve been doing it for 26 years. I’ve worked at a lot of zoos. I’ve worked at alligator parks. I’ve owned my own alligator company and now I’m at the sanctuary because I really like what they do of, you know, saving the animals, protecting them.
My hope is, the longer I’m here, the more when family and friends visit Tampa Bay or Pinellas County in particular, and they say, “Uh, where can you see alligators?” You can say, “Hey, go to the Sanctuary. They got orangutans. They got chimps. They got a crazy guy in the gator pen.” So, my hope is to bring a little more awareness, a little more donations to this place, so that way we’re taking care of all the animals better.
Kyle: But like you said, you’re not doing the old school wrestling stuff with these.
Michael: Exactly. I’m kind of against the gator wrestling. I don’t like jumping on the back. I don’t like prying their jaws open. I love alligators. These are truly like my kids. In fact, I have a 20-year-old daughter, and I tell her…she’s the “only child,” but I tell her all the time. I’m like, “No, you got 10 step-brothers and sisters. They’re just alligators.”
Because I love these gators like I do my child. I really do and I also joke with her, I say, “When I die…” which when you work with gators could be any day now, “When I die,” I’m like, “You were going to inherit a bunch of Star Wars figures, X-Men Comics, and a whole bunch of alligators.” Not going to get much money, but you’ll have those Star Wars figures and alligators.
Kyle: And you said that she’s training underneath you, right?
Michael: Yes, just like Bindi Irwin, kind of learned from her dad, the Crocodile Hunter. Everybody is familiar with Crocodile Hunter. A lot of people call me the American version of the Crocodile Hunter. So, I have my own Bindi. She’s 20 years old though. I didn’t want to get her in the gator pen when she was really young. Just for one safety reasons to a public perception. You don’t want to even get in to that. So, I’ve waited. She’s 20 years old now, and now I’ve started to let her get in the gator pen, but the thing is I’m in a battle because part of me is overprotective dad. I’m like, “Don’t get any closer.” And she’s, you know, way at the…20 feet away from the gators. And she’s like, “Dad, how am I supposed to learn anything if I don’t get a little closer?”
So, part of me wants to let her be a part of the family business. Part of me is overprotective dad and won’t let me get anywhere because I had been bitten before. I know how terribly bad it hurts.
Kyle: So, let’s get into the nitty-gritty a little bit because everyone has gotten into this for the blood and gore, I’m sure.
Michael: Of course, yes. Like a race. You know, you’re watching to see the accident and the explosion.
Kyle: So, you have been bitten.
Michael: Yes, I have been bitten quite a few times in the past. Like I said, we used to do…I know this is a podcast so you can’t tell. I probably sound tall and brave, and muscular…and I am single by the way, but I’m actually extremely short and really small. So, when I first got started on 18 years old, I’m only five foot two, five foot three. I was like a hundred pounds. The alligators were larger than me. They weighed more than me. So, in the beginning, when I was first learning, I actually got bit a lot, but I was so passionate about alligators. I was willing to keep going. Most people that work with gators, they get bit once. A lot of them they’re done then. A couple of them might get bit two or three times. Usually, after that, people like, “Okay, I’ll find another line of work.”
Kyle: So, do we know what the tally is?
Michael: The tally of bites, oh, I lost count around eight or so. I mean, it’s honestly kind of embarrassing because bites in the gator world though they make good interviews, they’re actually your mistakes. It would be like asking a pilot, “So, how many times have you crashed a plane?” You know, if you crashed more than two times, you don’t want to admit it. You want to be like, “No, I’m a good, safe pilot.”
But I will say when I first started, I was a lot skinnier, and my strength wasn’t very good, and we used to do, like I said, the gator wrestling where you jump on the back. And the gators, of course, didn’t like you when they did that. Now, my life is all about building a bond with them. I’ll come in here. I’ll read comic books. We’ll watch movies together. I’ll sing songs and I know. You know, it’s not like the alligators are like, “Huh, Deadpool was a very excellent film. I enjoyed the comedy.” They don’t really know, but what they’re learning is the guy came in here. He didn’t hurt us. He didn’t bother us. We just watched the show, and then he left. It’s a way of building a bond.
Kyle: So, who’s the alligator’s favorite villain?
Michael: The gator’s favorite villain? Oh, right now, they’re probably going with Thanos because he seems to be the only villain that’s actually won and with alligators being kind of looked at as villains themselves, they’re like, “Oh, yeah. Bad guy wins.”
Kyle: I would have figured the loser, but you know.
Michael: That’s true, but they like the winners.
Kyle: I’m sorry. I’m a bit of a comic nerd myself, so.
Michael: Well, a lot of the alligators…oh, I’ve got a gator named, “Thor.” I’ve got a gator named, “Chewy,” after Chewbacca. I had one named, “Hulk,’ but then I wanted to start printing shirts like team Thor, team Hulk and I realized, “Oh, I could get in trouble.” Thor is actually public domain, but Hulk isn’t. So, they used to all have comic names, but they had to get scaled back a little bit.
Kyle: I’m sorry. There’s definitely intellectual property laws in the alligator world.
Michael: So, it’s funny. I actually have to think of, “What would make a good T-shirt when I work with my alligators?” But I’ve got one named Fiddlesticks. I’ve not seen a Marvel character named Fiddlesticks yet. So, I think we’re okay.
Kyle: Hey, it might have been one in the 70s.
Michael: That’s true.
Kyle: There was some weird shit in the ’70s in the comic books.
Michael: There was a weird thing. Definitely.
Kyle: So, cool. So, what’s your favorite thing about alligators? What’s the draw for you?
Michael: The draw for me is, I guess, when I was a kid. I, of course, liked dinosaurs and I remember, like, three, four years old, I was devastated to find out, “Oh, shoot, dinosaurs aren’t in existence. I can’t go see them.” But I remember even as a young kid my mom said, “There’s alligators. They’re pretty close to dinosaurs.” She took me to a zoo to see them and to me, it was like…like, I was always a big fan of old, original, “Star Trek,” where Captain Kirk battled the big lizard monster. And I remember that’s what I thought, I’m like, “Mom, this is like what Captain Kirk battled.” And to me, it was like seeing a cool monster come to life. And I guess that was the original appeal that it’s like a dinosaur, a monster. I guess I’m still a big kid. So, I kind of like the fact that I can deal with the monster one-on-one and still in one piece.
Kyle: That’s good. although bitten a few times.
Michael: I got a few scars, but…
Kyle: All right. Let’s do some alligator trivia here. You can educate the masses here.
Michael: Got you.
Kyle: So, the one that everyone knows or things they know is that if you run in a zigzag pattern that you can outrun the alligator in that manner. True or false?
Michael: That’s a tough one because…what do you call? “MythBusters” even did this. I would say false because you can run straight ahead. If you do…what “MythBusters” actually found out is as long as you’re 10 to 20 feet away from a gator, you’re going to survive either way, whether you run zigzag or whether your run straightforward because what an alligator does is they are ambush predators. They wait for something to come close and then they jump out and grab them. Usually, after the first three or four steps, if they don’t get what they’re trying to ambush, they’re going to slink back in the water and wait to ambush something else.
And like I said, “MythBusters” even did where they did zigzag and ran away, and basically what they found was as long as they don’t get you on that initial ambush, you’re going to be okay either way.
Kyle: All right, good.
Michael: Now, to me personally, if you do a zigzag, you’re wasting your time and you’re looking sillier, but the…
Kyle: You’re pulling the Benny Hill.
Michael: You don’t really need to do all that crazy stuff.
Kyle: All right. So, we’re here by the pen. Over here to the right here, there’s a mock alligator nest.
Kyle: So, do alligators protect their nests at all or do they just lay and leave?
Michael: Good question. Alligators fiercely protect their nest, which is crazy because alligators have this reputation to being so scary and mean, and evil, but the moms are crazy loving and gentle with their babies. And we are getting right in the nesting season right about now. So, usually, what you’ll find is a big mound, maybe two feet high, of sticks, leaves, mud. They use their hind legs to make a big old muddy mound. Lay the eggs in it, and then they’ll stay by the water, and they’ll watch that mound fiercely. A lot of mom alligators will actually not even eat. They just stay by the nest, and if anything goes near it, be it a racoon, a bird, a human, they will fight for their life for their babies.
Kyle: So, definitely, if you see like a little pile of dirt and sticks and twigs near water, turn around and go the other way.
Michael: Leave it alone as quick as you can.
Kyle: So, that means the mating season was a few months ago, right?
Michael: Exactly. Mating season is usually the end of April through most of May. Maybe the first week of June or so, but…
Kyle: I got to ask you, how’s your alligator mating impression?
Michael: Oh, the bellow? I can’t do a bellow very well, but if you don’t know what a bellow is, to impress a female, a male alligator will do this, “Croar.”
Kyle: Oh, they’re looking at you.
Michael: They’re like, “Is it time?” They’re getting…
Kyle: They’re getting frisky.
Michael: I turned them on a little bit too much with that.
Kyle: They have been motionless for the 10 minutes we’ve been sitting here, but that, they’re like, “Hey.”
Michael: They heard that bellow and they’re like, “Bow and take a bow wow.” No, gators. Not in front of…we got guest here.
Kyle: Keep it in check over there.
Michael: Gosh. That was a semi-impression. It sounds more like outboard motor starting up. Maybe a motorcycle in the distance and generally, the way it works with alligators is whoever has the deeper voice is the female is more impressed with. Like, how when guys walk by a girl. They’re always puffing out their chest, flexing their muscle. Then the next guy that walks by the girl tries to puff his chest out even more.
Kyle: And they come in with the, “Hey, baby.”
Michael: “Hey, how you’re doing.” It was like, “Hey, how are you doing?” The, hey how are you doing, is what the bellow is. A gator tries to roar really low and then another alligator is like, “But I can roar even deeper.” And so they try to outroar each other.
Kyle: And they build a next.
Michael: Build the nest.
Kyle: It’s eggs, right?
Michael: Yeah, eggs. Exactly, eggs. And what’s kind of interesting, here’s a little…I know I don’t like to get into too much scientific talk. Like I said, I like to fancy myself as more of the comedian of the gator world, but ever once in a while I got to get in to a little fun fact here.
Kyle: Do you got a flex?
Michael: Yeah, you might be on Jeopardy one day. If you win, I just only ask for 10% of the earnings. Alligator eggs, the sex is determined by the temperature of the nest. So, when she lays the eggs they are not really determined whether they’re male or female. If it’s a lower degree temperature like 88 degrees, it will be mostly females. If it’s a higher degree, it will be mostly males. If you can get it right in the middle, like right on the 90, the 91 degrees then you’ll have a little mixture of both.
Kyle: Very cool. So, below, boy band temperature?
Michael: Exactly, right. There you go.
Kyle: Right and then over here, we got same babies. How old are these guys?
Michael: These guys are almost a year old. They’ll be a year in September.
Kyle: Not so baby-ish anymore.
Michael: Not so baby-ish. They’re still pretty small. They still get the, “Ahh.” So, as long as you got the “ahh” factor, they’re still pretty cute.
Kyle: And how long does it take for them to reach maturity?
Michael: Man, usually, a gator grows about a foot a year for about the first eight years or so. It goes up and down, depends on how much they eat. And usually when they’re about eight feet long, that’s when they can produce eggs so they’re considered, “mature.” But they could keep growing. A big alligator can get to be 12-feet long. Maybe even a little larger.
Kyle: Well. So, what’s the largest one you’re comfortable dealing with?
Michael: I’ve actually dealt with the gator that was close to 13-feet long. There was a zoo that wanted to refurbish their gator pen and they asked if me and a few of my friends…because I’ve been working with gators a while, they heard about me. They’re asking we keep the gator for them. So, we built a little temporary pen. They didn’t tell us how big the gator was. So, we go down thinking…
Kyle: Left that detail off.
Michael: And we go down thinking it’s maybe six, seven-foot gator, and this is the biggest gator I’ve ever seen. It’s like the Shaquille O’Neal of gators and you’re expecting like a teenager. So, we’re like, “Whoa.” We would have brought like five more people if we knew it was this size.
Kyle: What’s the weight we’re talking about on that size?
Michael: The weight on that guy is probably 600 to 800 pounds.
Kyle: Of writhing, not very cooperative reptile.
Michael: That’s what I always like to tell people, because I’ve worked with big gators and I’m like, “He’s almost 200 pounds.” And people look at me like, “Whoop-de-doo, 200 pounds,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s not 200 pounds of a dead weightlift. It’s 200 pounds of something that’s thrashing and biting and jumping.”
Kyle: And there was a recent video where the cop was helping load it into the back, and this not very large alligator just knocked him out.
Michael: A lot of people don’t realize that because once the tape is on their mouth people think, “Oh, they’re safe now.” Alligators’ heads are crazy, extremely hard. I have seen people with baby gators at zoos get blackeyes when the head hits them in the face. I’ve seen somebody get their tooth knocked out. So, even a “harmless gators,” still got to be careful with them.
Kyle: And so we got six guys in here. What’s their story? How big are we talking?
Michael: Their story. A few of these alligators were people’s pets, and they didn’t know what to do when they got big. And because they were born in captivity, you can’t just release them in the wild. Obviously, they’d be chasing people around. So, they either…
Kyle: Wait, let’s back up. So, is it legal to have a gator as a pet in Florida?
Michael: It used to be if you had a permit. Now, it’s a lot harder. I mean, way back in the ’60s and ’70s, you used to be able to buy them without anything. You’d come down to Florida, bring one back in a shoebox.
Kyle: It was bedlam back in the ’60s on Florida.
Michael: You can do anything back then. Literally, you could come down, come back with the pet alligator.
Kyle: You know, jump on a manatee, It’s all good. Whatever.
Michael: Ride around the bald eagle and whatever. But now, you have to have a permit, and sometimes people do have a permit, and then they still just get too big. Sometimes people just illegally keep them as a pet and then when it gets bigger than their bathtub, they’ll call a place like this and be like, “Hey, we’ve got a gator.” So, we’ll take them in. Some of them were at a gator farm, like the babies were actually at an alligator farm. They were considered runts, too small, and I hate it, but I get it from a farmer’s point of view. The farmer is like, “I’m not going to get my money out of it what I’m putting into it.” So, they were just going to kill them and, of course, I don’t want that. So, we save their lives.
Kyle: And when you say gator farm, are they actually farming for meat?
Michael: I always say it’s funny, like, in other places, just like, people are pig farmers, some people are cow farmers. In Florida, you have people who wake up in the morning, go out into their backyard and feed their alligators and harvest them for wallets, handbags, meat at restaurants. People always ask what my opinion is of that. Like I said, I love my alligators like my kids. So, it would be like having children nuggets. So, I’m not a huge fan, but I also understand there’s a place for the farms because since they’re farmed, it keeps people from poaching gators in the wild.
Kyle: And they were endangered for a while, right?
Michael: That’s true. Yes, they were endangered. Once again, back in the ’70s when things were crazy, like, you could just go at your backyard and say, “I’m going to shoot me some alligator.” Now, you obviously can’t do that. They’re one of the only animals that have gone from being on the endangered list to now, there are so many gators that they actually have a license and permitted hunts to thin the herd. And we’re talking, I mean, that’s only within a 40-year period. It went from, “We may not even have these,” to, “Oh, my gosh. There’s too many.”
Kyle: And I meet a lot of people from North. They’re like, “Hey, where can I go to see a gator?” And I’m like, “Pick almost any pond or body of water. There’s probably one there.”
Michael: It’s like, “Look at a body of water.” And a lot of times if you go to water make a gator call, I can’t do the bellow very good, but I can actually do the little grunt. It’s like, “Onk-onk.” The birds are competing with me.
Kyle: That was pretty good. I heard the babies doing that earlier today.
Michael: So, if you could kind of make a sound like that, it sounds like, “Onk-onk, onk-onk,” from the back of your throat, and you’ll see the gators pup up. So, and even if you don’t see a gator in the lake, chances are it’s there.
Kyle: So, speaking of gators in lakes, when I was a child, we used to go camping over in Auburndale. This place called Lake Arbuckle, and this is a quiz for you. So, there’s a campground there and they used to have a little…this is early ’80s, like, ’83, ’84, ’85. So, it was crazy times. So, they had the swimming area roped off, and there would be gators going across back and forth into the cypress trees, out of the cypress trees, all that stuff. Behind the campground was a bombing range where the navy planes would come and drop bombs during the night. Which one of those should I’ve been more concerned about?
Michael: More worried about humans with bombs or the alligators? I always say if it’s a choice between human or animal, humans are always the most dangerous. Truly. We are, by far, the most destructive. I mean, there’s a chance of getting hurt by the gators, but also, when you guys are jumping in the water, you’re probably yelling, screaming, cannonballing, and most alligators are going to be like, “Well, that looks like a lot of work to catch and eat.” Because you have to think. In the alligator’s thought pattern, he’s like, “I might get hurt if I try to catch that thing.” He’s like doing flips and screaming and throwing stuff. So, the gator’s more than likely going to be smart enough to say, “Let’s leave that alone.”
Kyle: So, that’s a good answer. I like it because we were not worried at all about the alligators. Other question is, so, Great Things Tampa Bay. We put together outdoor events and stuff like that. We canoe down the Hillsborough River. There is a ton of alligators there.
Michael: There are some big ones.
Kyle: Really big ones. So, two questions, one, should people be worried and, two, what exactly is a gator doing whenever it goes down on one side of your canoe and comes up on the other side?
Michael: Hood questions. Should you be worried? I would say mostly no. I don’t want to play it off like, “Hey, there’s nothing to worry about. The gator will never hurt you.” I mean, I’m not that stupid. They do occasionally attack. That’s kind of like saying, “There are accidents on 19. Should I never drive on it?” No, I mean, just be careful. I say the same thing. There are alligators there. There is a small chance they could attack. Mostly if they’ve been fed by someone else because once you feed a gator, they just think human is equal food. It’s like the old cartoon where, you know, someone’s stranded on a boat and they see their buddy, but in their little mind bubble they don’t see their buddy, it looks like a big steak in their mind. Once you feed a gator, all of a sudden when they see a human, little mind bubble pops up and it’s just like food.
Kyle: So, they’re like a cat in that regard.
Michael: Exactly. My daughter says all the time, she’s like, “Dad, gators are…” She’s got this whole long proposition of how alligators are more like cats than dinosaurs. She just thinks they’re exactly like cats. So, I mean, if they’ve been fed by someone else, they could come up to you expecting food. But most of the time, once again, when you’re in a canoe, you’re in this big long thing, you got paddles which look like weapons, the alligator more than likely is going to say, “I don’t even know what that is, but I don’t think that would be a tasty meal. I think I would get hurt if I go after that.” So, a lot of times when they’re swimming underneath the canoe, they’re just trying to get away. They’re like, “I’m getting out of here. There is some big-looking scary monster thing.” So, they’re just trying to get away from you.
Kyle: And usually making like very unnatural noises, like the…
Michael: Exactly. Well, it’s like if you got scared in the middle of the night and you just started running, your feet would be slipping and you’d be… The bigger the noise it makes, the more you startled it and it’s like, “Get out of the way. I’m scared.” So, but when a gator coming at you, you don’t think of it as a funny, slippery animal that’s slipping and sliding. You think, “Oh, he was attacking.” When most of the time, he’s just trying to run.
Kyle: All right, that’s good. Is there any other gator stuff I missed?
Michael: Oh, there’s…how long do you want to talk? Like I said, I’ve been working with alligators 26 years. I can tell you stories about alligators forever. I got interested in gators when I was like seven years old. I am local, by the way. So, I was born and raised in the Tampa Bay area. For most of my birthdays, I would go to Boyd Hill Nature Park and I would bring all my friends with me, and I would make them try to call up alligators. That was my birthday party.
Kyle: And I’m sure you were a hit.
Michael: Usually, I get my mom to make me a Hulk Hogan birthday cake. So, we would always have the Hulk cake and that was always a big hit because she would make a chocolate chip nipple on the Hulk Hogan. So, everybody, every year, couldn’t wait to see the Hulk Hogan cake, and then I would force them all to go to Boyd Hill Nature trail for hours, looking for alligators. And for some reason year after year, I had less people coming to my party.
Kyle: I can’t imagine why.
Michael: Then my other friend remembers. He said, he invited me to his house for spend a night party. About 10 years old. I come over with a giant suitcase and he’s thinking to himself, “How many days does this guy thinking he’s spending the night?” Well, I open up the suitcase. I didn’t bring a single pair of clothes. I didn’t bring a toothbrush. I didn’t bring deodorant. What I filled it with was a million rubber alligators, and I spent the whole night explaining to him how when I own my own alligator park, I’m going to have the big ones over here. And I just took out all my gators and did basically a diorama of my own alligator park. And he’s like, “That’s what our spend the night party was.” He’s like, “You didn’t bring a single pair of clothes. You just brought alligator.”
Kyle: I think that’s the living definition of living the dream. I mean, you’re living your dream. That’s awesome. I love it.
Michael: That’s what I do now.
Kyle: So, how can people find you, follow you? So, we are going to do some alligator stuff here in a minute.
Michael: We’re going to try to go in the gator pen. So, this can be the first podcast ever to be done from inside an alligator pen.
Kyle: I wanted to get this out of the way just in case I don’t make it out. So, the SD card is here.
Michael: That’s true. My daughter is here. If we don’t survive, at least, grab the recorder and get the SD card.
Kyle: Just upload it. There’s instructions.
Michael: It will be like one of those found footage movies, or something. This was the last recording.
Kyle: That’s right. The greatest thing in Tampa Bay was the last.
Michael: We saved the best for last as the end.
Kyle: So, how can people find you? How can they follow you?
Michael: Cool. If you go to social media, look for the gator crusader on basically everything, Instagram, the gator crusader, Facebook, the gator crusader. YouTube is my big specialty. That’s where you could see the best videos. Like I said, I’ve got a video where I had a giant 12-foot gator. I put my arm inside his mouth and sent a text from inside the gator’s mouth.
Kyle: Wait, what did the gator’s mouth say?
Michael: It actually had really good reception, which was interesting, I guess because of the eco-chamber of the jaws. But, I sent a text from inside the mouth. I put a hotdog in my mouth and let an alligator bite it out from between my lips. I’ve got other videos coming that are even more dangerous than that. So, I celebrate all of my holidays with gators. Like, for Valentine’s Day, I bought the gators a big giant card, balloons, and then I took a candy box. I took all the chocolate out and filled it with steak. So, it was like steak sampler and I gave it to them all. So, if you go to my YouTube, you’ll see crazy stuff. Definitely subscribe. So, the YouTube is the thing I’m really pushing right now.
Kyle: All right. So, check it out on YouTube. It will be on the show notes. Before we get in here, give me the nitty-gritty for what I need to be on to look out here. How hard can they bite, how bad are the claws, how strong is the tail?
Michael: I usually don’t tell that to people till after we survive it because if you know going in, it makes it little more scary. But the alligators this size we’re working with, they have jaw closing power equal to a lion, maybe a little bit greater. So, if you do happen to get bit by one of these guys. It is as if you are getting bit by a lion, plus, these guys do the death roll where they spin and roll, and rip, and tear. So, I would say stay behind me.
Kyle: Good plan.
Michael: I’m going to leave the gate open.
Kyle: Thank you.
Michael: And if I say, “Go,” don’t question, don’t ask, just run for the gate and go out.
Kyle: All right. I can do that.
Michael: But, I think we’ll be okay for the most part. Let me get a little bit of food for these.
Kyle: And I’m not going to ask you if you all have insurance for this or not.
Kyle: So, what sort of food do the alligators eat?
Michael: They’ll eat any kind of meat. Today, we’ve got chicken hearts.
Kyle: I see that you’re actually putting the meat into something that’s attached to you.
Michael: I’ve got a little trainer pouch here because I don’t know if anybody’s watched the old, “Jurassic Park,” movies. Do you know how Chris Pratt trains the raptors with a little clicker? I, actually, truly trained my gators with the clicker and I did it before him. I didn’t steal it. I think he stole it for me. I was like, all of my friends…because before the movie came out, I’ve never seen anybody do that, and all of my friends were like, “Somebody saw you doing it and included it in the movie.” All right. Let me get Chewy out of your way.
Kyle: Like it’s a trick of the trade.
Michael: Chewy, turn. Chewy, closer. All right, you can come in now. Closer. All the alligators here have names. Head up. They do know their names. Head up, good boy. And right now I’m trying to just teach him…good job, thank you. Basic alligator behaviors, like the come-on command. Holding and stopping on command. It’s really easy to get a gator to chase you on command. The holding and stopping, that’s pretty tough.
Kyle: And just so we have the picture here. So, we’re actually inside the cage here now.
Michael: Faye, can you get a picture where you could see him and the gators?
Faye: I can.
Michael: Just get a couple of those, doesn’t hurt have too many. So, right now, we are doing a podcast from inside the dragon’s layer. Get your head up.
Faye: It’s fine.
Kyle: I’m literally probably, what is that, like three feet from the tail of this alligator?
Michael: Shoot, this is on a podcast. No one knows. He’s not three feet away. He is literally two inches away from a snapping gator.
Kyle: What was this alligator’s name?
Michael: This is Chewy.
Kyle: So, Chewy just turned around from the corner and is coming back in this direction.
Michael: He’s like, “They’re talking about me.”
Kyle: He’s trying to be a star.
Michael: Are you watching?
Kyle: So, I have moved a few feet from the door. I’m definitely feeling a little bit more at risk right now.
Michael: Come on buddy. Water, good boy. All right. So, now, you can keep your eye on Chewy. He could get good audio because I know Elizabeth will hiss. Head up. Good job. Thank you. Good testing to get a little…Rocky. They’re showing off. They see that microphone. They’re like, “I’m going to make all kinds of sounds.” Head up. Come on. I don’t know if it comes out. Can you hear that puff of the jaws?
Michael: You definitely don’t want your arm stuck in there.
Kyle: So, usually I am the guy who’s like, “Yeah, alligators, you don’t have anything to worry about.” Currently…
Michael: Well, you’re literally a foot away from a gator with his mouth open. Thor, head up. Good job. Closer. Closer. There you go. A lot of times after eating, Thor does that. I’m not sure if that’s his way of saying, “Thank you for the food,” or, “Give me more.” I haven’t determined yet.
Kyle: That’s probably both.
Michael: That’s what I’m saying. That was delicious, but I definitely want some more.
Kyle: So, I’ve always wondered because their mouth whenever they open it, it looks a little flashy and strange, I guess. Like there’s not an obvious hole.
Michael: So, if you see an alligator in the back of the throat, they have a flap of skin that they can open and shut. That way they can open their mouth underwater. And if they just had an open throat, they would drown. So, they can close the flop, open their mouth underwater. When they eat, they undo the flop and it slides down. So, it doesn’t look like they’ve even got a throat. They do, it’s just a little floppiest skin.
Kyle: And do they have tongues at all?
Michael: Hey, do you have a tongue? See if… Chewy, come here. We’re going to show the tongue. Head up. See this right there?
Kyle: Let me see.
Michael: They do have a tongue. It’s just fixed to the bottom of their mouth. See that and kind of wiggling it around?
Kyle: Yeah, I see.
Michael: So, they do have a tongue, but it’s fixed to their mouth because you know, they’ve got to be able to flip food back and they have to have taste buds. So, they have to actually have a tongue, but when an alligator slams his jaw shut, and they do it involuntarily, they’re not thinking about it. Like, if a raindrop hit his mouth or if a bug were to fly in it, he would slam his jaw shut without even thinking. So, if he was…
Kyle: He’s an ambush predator, right?
Michael: Exactly. So, if he was like a dog and would just have the tongue out, and all of a sudden raindrop hit it, he would actually bite his own tongue off.
Kyle: Not a good look?
Michael: Yeah, nobody wants that. So, they do have a tongue, but it’s fixed to the bottom of their mouth. Right, Elizabeth? Come here. Can you give us a nice sound? Ready? There you go. That was the sound I was looking for. Closer. I want you right here. Closer. People truly cannot tell on this podcast how close you are, but you are very, very close. I mean, I’m in front of you.
Kyle: Which I appreciate.
Michael: So…and truly if a gator would dive at you, I would jump in front of the gator to protect you because this is my job. You’re just here. You are my guest. So, I would protect you, but at the same time, it’s scary being this close. So, isn’t that crazy? Elizabeth is the alpha of the pen. So, before I came in here, she was the one telling everybody go in the water, go here. Now, all of a sudden, I come walking in here and I’m like, “Get in the water, do this.” So, she’s a little grumpy with me and plus, when I leave, she has to go back to being the alpha. So, if you notice, usually when I feed her, she hisses afterwards because that’s the way for her to save face with the other gators. Because if she just blindly obeyed everything I did, the other gators would be like, “Oh, Elizabeth ain’t tough. She did everything like I said.”
Kyle: Like, “We ain’t listening to you.”
Michael: So, if she kisses afterwards it’s her way of saying, “I did it, but I didn’t want to.” It’s I figure, you know.
Kyle: She’s a little bitchy.
Michael: She’s got to save face. I’ll let her do it.
Kyle: They were like, “Are you kidding me?”
Michael: They’re like, “Who is it?” Especially in the summer time, these guys could eat all day. They’re cold blooded, so, you know. They’re like, you feed a fish to the point they die during…
Kyle: So, that’s the monkeys going after the sirens.
Michael: Whenever they hear the sirens, I don’t know if they know what it is, but man, they go crazy for that.
Kyle: So, how much do they usually eat a day?
Michael: Well, it depends on the time of year, like November, December, a lot of times they won’t eat at all. If you ever see a gator on, “Discovery Channel,” or something, they eat the big wildebeest or a big dear. Technically, a gator could go one year on one meal.
Kyle: Holy crap.
Michael: They wouldn’t want to, but they could go that long. So, I tend to feed them a little bit more than that obviously. Chewy, come on.
Kyle: So, it’s basically what I tried to do at the local barbecue place.
Michael: Exactly. Like all you can eat is buffet. They try to get as much as they can.
Kyle: So, Chewy just took a few steps toward me and he jumped in the middle of the coral then moved over back into the corner.
Michael: Good. Thank you for listening.
Kyle: So, how much just Chewy weigh?
Michael: Chewy’s probably about 100 to 200 pounds or so.
Kyle: All right, and how old would he be?
Michael: This guy is probably about seven or eight years old. Can you scoop that for me? I’ll get you some food, but you got to scoop. You got to scoop. Go. All right. I’ll get you some food. Oh, that was a little bit of a close call.
Kyle: So, how long have you’ve been doing this?
Faye: Since I was born. He’s been doing it for 26 years. I’m 20, so.
Kyle: There you go.
Faye: There you go.
Michael: Chewy’s coming back. He’s like, “Oh, Dad’s not in the pen. It could be bad.”
Kyle: He knows there’s some food.
Michael: You can always tell it’s a close call when I get quiet because if you know my daughter always says, “Dad, he talks nonstop.” But if it’s a close call, he’s actually quiet for about five whole seconds.
Kyle: Focus. So, what’s the alligator’s favorite spot to be rubbed?
Michael: They kind to like it under the chin. I’ve actually had a few alligators. It took me a while to get them used to me enough. We had to watch a lot of, “Deadpool,” a lot of “Star Wars,” to get to this point, but I had a few that I could actually go up behind and massage their neck. And I can feel their body just totally relax, but it’s almost like a cat, once again. If a cat will sit still and let you pet him, a lot of times they start purring. They’re like, “Oh, this was great.” But it takes a lot of bonding to let a cat do that. The same thing with the gators.
Kyle: Not recommended to to do that with ones you find at Hillsborough River.
Michael: No, gators or cats found at the Hillsborough River. Don’t try it with either.
Kyle: That’s true.
Michael: Ready, guys? Thor, are you ready? You can’t bite my hand off on a podcast because no one’s going to see it. You got to save that for the YouTube stuff.
Kyle: Well, just be sure it makes it to Animal Planet, right?
Michael: Yeah, that’s right. It was funny, after we were offered like thousands of dollars for a bite. Animal Planet is like, “If you could catch a bite, we’ll give you so much money.” I remember my friend and I actually sat at a restaurant and for about 45 minutes tried to think of areas we could let the gator bite us so we could cash in, but every single place we thought of…you know, because we’ve worked with gators enough, we would think of the worst scenario. I’m like, “What if I’d let them get my thigh because my thigh is big and fat, and meaty?” And he’s like, “Yeah, but what if he hits the artery and you’re dead?” And then I’m like, “What about my butt?” And they’re like, “Yeah, but what if he spins and rolls it off, then you’ve only got half a butt for the rest of your life?”
Kyle: That’s a problem.
Michael: So, we couldn’t come up with anything that we figured would be worth the money.
Kyle: So, they seemed to be all right with other alligators climbing all over. Is that a normal thing or…?
Michael: A wild alligator would not be quite that okay, but these alligators have been pen mates most of their life. So, they end up becoming pretty social to the fact that they’ll lay…if you’ve ever been to zoos and stuff, you’ll see them, they’ll lay on top of each other. That one just put his paws straight in the other gator’s mouth. And if you noticed Elizabeth, she didn’t even try to bite. She’s more just like, “Get your paw out of my mouth. I’m trying to eat.”
Kyle: Almost like siblings.
Michael: At his point…and they do fight from time to time, but for an alligator, their fights are very tame. If you were to see two gators fight in the wild, you are watching dinosaurs going at it. These guys are more like two brothers fighting over the final turkey leg on Thanksgiving. You know, they fight, but it’s nothing too terrible.
Kyle: All right, cool. I’m good in here if you all are.
Michael: All right. We’re done buddy. Can you scoop back?
Kyle: Well, I’m sure it’s a lot of additional stress with me being in here.
Michael: Right, because I’m worried about my daughter. I’m worried about the gators. I’m worried a little bit about me, but mostly worried about my guest that’s here.
Kyle: Am I good to go?
Michael: You’re good. You can go. I’m just going to stand in front of Chewy in case he tries anything.
Kyle: All right. I’m out of the cage.
Michael: So far so good.
Kyle: It was worth the trip just for that.
Michael: There we go. Good boy. Thank you for being so good. Good job, guys. Thank you. I love you guys. Good boys. Good job. Thank you.
Kyle: So the clicker is a positive affirmation?
Michael: The clicker, yes. It’s a positive reinforcement. It’s pretty common in the training world. I’ve heard of people clicker training chickens before. You can do it with humans. So, if you’re a wife and you want to help teach your husband something, get some training books.
Kyle: I might have to edit that part out. My wife has been struggling with me.
Michael: Oh, yes. If you see her with the clicker, you’re like, “Oh, no.” But you get a lot. She’ll probably give you a lot of chocolate treats in the meantime.
Kyle: That definitely works for me. So what’s one thing that you wish everyone would know about alligators that would make…make your day if everyone started doing one thing in regards to alligators?
Michael: The one thing I would truly say more than anything is not feeding alligators in the wild because, like you just saw how those alligators, they’re not afraid of me at all. Once you feed a gator, they lose that natural fear, and then it’s just a huge snowball effect because almost every bite or attack on a human, you’ll see the news crew interview neighbors and they’re like, “That gator was so nice. We used to feed it tuna or fish all the time.” And then I’m like, ding-ding. That’s why the gator attacked.
So, what happens when you feed an alligator, next day a nice old lady is walking her dog and all of a sudden the dog or the young lady will be fine for the gator. He’s like, “I don’t care. I’ll take either.” So, then all of a sudden, now a family is missing their mom or grandma and they’re not coming back. Stories go out on the news, everybody starts hating gators. They start killing gators. Everyone’s afraid. So, now, the gators don’t win. The humans don’t win. No one wins when you feed wild alligators. So, it’s not the most interesting thing to learn about alligators, but if less people fed them, there would be a lot less accidents and everyone would get along better.
Kyle: It’s true. So, thank you so much, gator crusader.
Michael: Thank you. Thanks for having me. We all survived.
Kyle: And made it out all right.
Michael: We’re all in one piece. So, that’s about as good as it can get.
Kyle: So, anything you want to cover or anything before we leave?
Michael: Oh, sure. I got a couple of things. A lot of what I’m doing now is on in app called, Uplive. So, go to your app section, hit Uplive, then look for the Gator Crusader. I actually livestream from inside the gator pen because my YouTube videos are super cool, but you also know if I’ve got a hotdog in my mouth, I’m not going to upload me getting my face ripped off onto YouTube. But if you’re watching it live, livestreaming, you have no idea what’s going to happen. Am I going to check in out and run away when the gator comes at me? Is the hotdog going to get bitten out perfectly? Is he going to grab my face? When you’re watching it on livestream, there’s no telling what’s going to happen.
So, once again, Uplive, look for the Gator Crusader and I livestream just about every day. And, I recently moved from Orlando over here to my hometown which is the Tampa Bay area. I was born in the St. Pete Clearwater area. So, this is where I was born and raised, and I’ve recently spent most of my days in Orlando doing things with alligators, but I just recently came back to my hometown because I wanted to help out the sanctuary and I’m always…I will always stay at the sanctuary, but I’m also looking for any other kind of theme park, like, Clearwater Aquarium, are you listening?
Kyle: Hint, hing.
Michael: I think this would be a good little addition because when people come to Florida, they want to see alligators. So, they could see the cool dolphin from the movie, Winter, and they could see the Gator Crusader. But I’m also, look, anything out there because at the sanctuary, it’s more of a volunteer thing, but I have 20 years professional experience with gators. I would love to bring my alligator excitement to, like, a Busch Gardens, Lowry Park Zoo, or just about anything out there. So, if anybody’s looking for something new, I actually train the alligators. Do things that nobody else does with gators.
Kyle: All right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time. It’s been a pleasure. And, so, Gator Crusader, all of the information is going to be in the show notes. Check it out.
Michael: All right. Thanks guys.
Kyle: So, I’d like to thank Michael Womer, the Gator Crusader, for taking the time and ensuring my safety inside of the gator pen. Definitely, a lot of fun. Be sure to go out to the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary. A bunch of great folks out there. I want to be trying to interview the owner of that as well, just the story seemed really interesting to me, and I would love to get some additional information to share that with you all as well, but it’s…look it out in the Palm Harbor area. We’re going to have the information on the show notes. Just open that up and click there.
Our app should be live by the time you hear this. So, please be sure to share that with friends and families, loved ones. All you got to do, if you got an iPhone, just go to the App Store, look for Great Things Tampa Bay. We should pop out there at the top. If you got an Android phone, just go to Google Play and again, Great Things Tampa Bay, we will be there.
Coming up next, we’ve got segment two. Your facts, Manhattan’s four last remaining phone booths are currently free of charge. And they’re in the process of replacing 4,500 old phone booths with WiFi hotspots, and in an attempt to create the largest and fastest municipal WiFi network in the world. Suck it NYNEX. So, for those of you that don’t know, NYNEX is the old New York telephone company that was merged into Verizon back in the day. It’s old and phone nerd thing. Sorry.
Today’s episode is brought to you by, Happiest Doulas. Hospital childbirth classes teach you how to be a good patient for them. Here in Tampa, the Happiest Doulas is an independently owned agency preparing soon to be parents with safe strategies for labor and delivery at the hospital. With the class taught by the Happiest Doulas, you’ll learn how to advocate for yourself to get evidence-based care and reduce your C-section risk. Speaking of, have you checked the C-section rate at your hospital yet?
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So, today, you are playing us out. We got a pretty rocking tune from Comin’ Home The Band and this one is called, “‘Rainin.” We’ll have some information on them in the show notes as well. If you’d like to catch them at a show around town, buy a CD or anything. Again, Comin’ Home The Band, and this one is pretty good.