1. Gabby moved to Florida not for the sun, but for the alligators
Florida is a strange place, often producing fantastic news headlines (and being well known for being retirement central), but it’s also home to the largest reptile in all of North America: the American alligator. While sunny beaches are usually Florida’s draw, their scaly inhabitants enticed one young New Yorker to move down south.
About two years ago, then 22-year old Gabriella Scampone moved to South Florida, where she fell in love with the state’s 1.25 million alligators. She started volunteering for Gator Boys Alligator Rescue at Everglades Holiday Park and rescuing nuisance alligators from a variety of places that really should not have alligators.
2. She wrestles alligators to get people to like them more
At the park, Gabby does alligator wrestling shows to help educate the public about the giant reptiles. “By working hands-on with them, I am able to grab people’s attention, educate, and change a few opinions on them,” she wrote on her website. As one of North America’s few large predators, alligators don’t exactly put themselves in people’s good graces.
Not only does Gabby daringly wrestle with the animals, she also feeds, cleans, and takes care of them. When she’s not working at Gator Boys, she volunteers at Everglades Outpost, an animal rehabilitation facility and sanctuary. There, they have about 500 alligators and 200 other animals.
3. Gabby kisses alligators, because why not?
Back at Gator Boys, Gabby smiles wide while she sits on a slow-moving alligator. She rubs its side, looking at ease while lounging on its back. Few other people would be so comfortable, but Gabby has always loved reptiles and has been volunteering with animals since she was 15 years old.
She walks over to one alligator, greeting it and saying, “Swampy! Hi Swampy. This is the love of my life.” While reptiles may be her first love, she’s also worked with animals like kangaroos, wolves, and lemurs. “I like working with predators and showing the nicer side of them,” she told Barcroft Animals. She crouches next to an alligator, raising its nose to her gentle kiss.
4. Daily, Gabby puts on an alligator show at Gator Boys
In front of an audience, Gabby puts on one of her alligator shows. She demonstrates how she catches one while alone. She sits on its back, holding its jaws shut with her hands. But then she snuggles its snout under her chin, clamping it shut between her chin and chest. Her arms are now free to tie a rope or tape around the alligator’s jaws.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy, though. First, she trained with taped alligators, because these animals can be horribly dangerous. Male alligators average eight to ten feet long, but since they don’t stop growing, old ones can get to 15 feet and weigh over 1,000 pounds.
5. Gabby puts her face inches from the toothy open mouth of an alligator
Next, in front of everyone, she daringly shows off a move called the “face-off” (because if it goes wrong, her face will, you know, come off). Delicately and carefully, she rests her chin on the alligator’s snout, looking down into its wide open mouth inches below her face.
Alligators typically have between 74 and 80 teeth at a time, but they can go through 2,000 in a lifetime, as the teeth fall out or wear down and new ones come in. If anything falls into the alligator’s mouth, Gabby says to the crowd, like a drop of sweat or a grain of sand, the jaws will snap shut. How she isn’t sweating in humid and hot Florida remains a mystery.
6. Alligators were once endangered, but now they’re everywhere
Currently, 24-year-old Gabby is working toward her Bachelor’s degree in biology while teaching people about alligators and other animals. Gabby works hard to save as many animal lives as possible for the individuals’ sake, but she is conservation-minded. Florida may be overrun with alligators now, but a few decades ago they were endangered.
However, with the help of state and federal conservation efforts, preservation of their freshwater wetland habitats, and fewer people wanting alligator products, their numbers rebounded. Now, there’s about five million across the southeastern United States. But with all those alligators around all those people, encounters are bound to happen. That’s where Gabby comes in.
7. Gabby takes alligators out of swimming pools and off of people’s porches
Alligators are so abundant in Florida that people find them in golf courses, lakes, backyards, and even their own living rooms. And, as most anyone would be, people are scared when they find giant reptiles where there shouldn’t be giant reptiles. So, they call the Nuisance Alligator Hotline, because of course Florida would have that.
Gabby is a state licensed alligator trapping agent, so when these calls come in, she goes and catches the nuisance alligator. The animals are considered a nuisance if they pose any threat to humans, pets, or livestock. By doing trapping them, Gabby is actually saving the alligator’s life.
8. Nuisance alligators have to either stay in captivity or be “dealt with”
While alligators as a species have bounced back, individual gators are at risk when they stray too close to humans. By law, any nuisance alligator over four feet long must be kept in captivity for the rest of its life or killed. They can’t just be put somewhere else because they often return to the same spot.
It’s often harder to capture the alligator a second time because they can learn from the first experience. Plus, it’s hard to put an alligator somewhere that already has resident alligators, because it can disrupt the social structure and lead to one of them dying.
9. It’s illegal to feed alligators because it makes them dangerous
While you may want to expand your horizons from feeding ducks to feeding alligators, it’s actually illegal (side note: don’t feed ducks bread; it’s super unhealthy for them!). It’s dangerous when alligators associate people with food because they’re more likely to approach humans and then they become nuisance alligators.
And since many alligator trappers just kill the animal, the relaxing Sunday morning activity of feeding alligators becomes a death sentence. Gabby and the Gator Boys, however, capture the alligators with a little bit of wranglin’ and keep them safe in captivity. They’re properly trained and licensed, so it isn’t illegal for them to touch alligators.
10. Gabby just wants you to know that alligators aren’t that dangerous
“A lot of people, 95%, think that the alligators are going to chase them and eat them and kill you,” Gabby told Barcroft Animals. “They are not going to kill you and attack you for no reason. They don’t want anything to do with you, they are not going to chase you.”
“They are not going to jump out of the water and try to eat you,” she continued. “They want to be left alone. People get bit if they are feeding the alligator, harassing the animal, but they are pretty chill, even in the wild. They don’t want anything to do with you.”
11. Gabby once left a date hanging to go rescue a nuisance alligator
Gabby’s first love is alligators, so any guy she dates has to measure up and love them too. One time, she was in the middle of a date when she got the call about a nuisance alligator. Since it could have been a life or death situation for the person or the alligator, she got up and left the date.
“But it was a blessing in disguise,” she later told Barcroft Animals, “because the guy didn’t wanna come with me. So there will not be a second date.” But not to worry, she found a guy who likes alligators just as much as her. He’s Chris, the photographer at Gator Boys.
12. But Chris has to share Gabby’s heart with someone else: Swamp Thing the Alligator
Gabby proclaimed Swampy the love of her life. “My favorite is Swamp Thing and I think it is because he is a little bit handicapped. He has a permanently broken back leg. He has a cataract in one eye. He is more of a pet; we don’t really use him for shows,” she told Barcroft Animal.
“But he is just really sweet, he has his own routine,” she continued. “Every single morning when we clean the pit, he will go and let the water just push in his face. You know, just lay there and he will let me cuddle with him. He is a sweetheart and I love him.”
13. Despite the risk, Gabby is determined to keep all 10 of her fingers
Of course, as cuddly as she may get with these alligators, there’s always a risk with handling these huge animals. Gabby isn’t taking things lightly—she knows the danger. Alligators have immense bite strength, at about 2,000 pounds (aka the weight of a small pickup truck). But Gabby fully intends to keep all her fingers.
“When I moved here and told my parents that I was wrestling alligators they weren’t too excited,” she told Barcroft Animals. “They were obviously afraid for me because it can be dangerous. But they support me in everything I do.” We’re rooting for her to keep her fingers, too.
14. Gator Boys had their own TV show about catching nuisance alligators
Gabby’s boss at Everglades Holiday Park may be familiar to Animal Planet lovers — he’s Paul Bedard, the star of TV’s Gator Boys. Long before Gabby went to Florida, cameras followed Paul and friends on his trips to catch nuisance alligators reported by concerned callers from 2012 to 2014.
Paul often surprised the caller by donning a snorkel and swimming into the lake or pond containing an alligator of unknown size. Underwater, he hooks a thin but sturdy loop around the alligator’s neck and then hauls it onto land. Paul dances around the reptile, tiring it out, before sitting on its back and taping its jaws shut. The job is over in the blink of an eye.
15. Alligators’ charm attracts all kinds of people to work with them
Gabby isn’t the only one who took a leap and fell in love with alligators. 42-year-old Shannon Williamson left her cushy executive job at an HR company to wrangle gators in Texas. It all started when she met Gary Saurage, co-owner of the reptile park and rescue center Gator Country. He, like Gabby, catches nuisance alligators.
Shannon and Gary started dating, but Shannon was wary of the many reptiles he worked (and basically lived) with. Eventually, though, she fell in love with both Gary and the alligators. Mr. Cuddles, the massive 11 foot 7-inch long gator, became her favorite. She doesn’t miss her old job one bit.
16. An alligator’s blind spot lets Gabby stick her hand in its mouth
One aspect about alligators that actually makes them easier to work with is their range of vision. Alligator eyes are situated on their head to look side-to-side, but they have a blind spot at the end of their nose. Using this small weakness, Paul or Gabby can stick their hand in its mouth and the alligator won’t even notice!
Just don’t try this at home or in your local neighborhood alligator pond. However, if you’re wondering why alligators evolved to have this blind spot, it’s because their eye position actually gives them a very wide range of vision. An alligator can see almost everything around it, except for a few areas.
17. On her Instagram, Gabby teaches people about all sorts of animals
Gabby teaches people about animals both in the Florida heat and online. She uses Instagram to show amazing pictures of her and animals, while also teaching people about them. In one post she holds an opossum and writes about how dangerous it is to try and rehabilitate baby animals if you’re an amateur.
In another she holds a tortoise and writes about how gopher tortoises are a keystone species, meaning they have a huge influence on their environment and other species depend on them. In fact, many animals live in gopher tortoise burrows. Gabby writes a disclaimer that she had a permit to handle the tortoise, since it’s illegal to touch them unless you’re helping one across a road.
18. Gabby just started her own YouTube channel: Florida’s Wildest
Recently, Gabby embarked on a new adventure with her boyfriend Chris: YouTube. Together, they started a channel (called Florida’s Wildest) and posted their first video. It shows them snorkeling and diving with wild dolphins and stingrays in the Bahamas. The marine mammals play and swim around Gabby in an otherwise empty blue expanse.
Since the Gator Boys TV show is over, you’re going to have to now get your gator fix from Gabby’s YouTube channel. She plans on posting videos of alligator catches and other adventures relating to the exotic animals she works with. An upcoming video will feature her new pet Zazu the Von Der Decken’s Hornbill.
19. Gabby cares for a variety of rescued and injured animals
In her second YouTube video, Gabby and Chris feed a variety of injured and rescued animals at the Everglades Outpost wildlife rescue. Tortoises, skunks, and even a mountain lion live at the facility. There’s even a lemur that was someone’s pet, who had all of its teeth removed.
Some animals are rehabilitated and released back in the wild, but some, like the toothless lemur or the declawed mountain lion, couldn’t survive out on their own. They will stay at the Everglades Outpost for life, where volunteers like Gabby care for them. And since it’s Florida, there are also a ton of alligators on site.
20. Alligators can actually learn to respond to their names
Dogs are great at learning their names and come when called. Cats can be wishy-washy, they probably know their own name, but maybe won’t acknowledge every time you say it. What about alligators? Well, Chris and Gabby are teaching some of the Everglades Outpost gators their names.
One enclosure has over a hundred alligators, some of which have special needs. One is blind, one is missing a foot, and one is skinny and rough around the edges. To single these alligators out of the crowd, Gabby and Chris teach them to come when called by using food as an incentive. Good thing these gators aren’t in the wild — imagine calling your dog and an alligator comes instead!
21. Gabby has to be careful when training alligators
Other than nuisance alligators, Gabby volunteers with a variety of injured gators. Some are missing part of their jaws, because they were shot at. When she’s around so many alligators, she has to be careful, so she uses a long, hooked metal stick to gently nudged them away when they get feisty.
In one YouTube video, she tells the camera that if you drop the food you’re giving them, don’t try to reach and grab it off the ground. You will get bit. But after enough socializing with Gabby and Chris, some of the alligators realize the people aren’t threats and don’t try to attack them.
22. Alligators eat fruit and use tools to lure in birds
The alligator shows at Gator Boys help pay for all the needs of the Park’s reptilian residents, like food and medical supplies. Alligators are opportunistic carnivores and eat anything from fish to birds to mammals. Sometimes, they’ll even eat fruit, like citrus fruits right off the tree. Even alligators like Florida’s oranges!
But something really interesting happens when alligators hunt birds: they use tools. Some alligators balance sticks on their head to lure in birds looking for nest-making materials. Then an unsuspecting bird comes to close and the alligator easily snaps it up. Since they often look like logs in the water, it’s an understandable but deadly mistake.
23. Alligators are really important to their ecosystem
It’s a good thing alligators didn’t go extinct because they are actually quite important members of their ecosystems. They’re called “ecosystem engineers” because they actually change the physical structure of the environment. Since alligators are so big, they make small ponds in the wetlands.
These ponds are called “alligator holes” and they’re important because they retain water even during the dry season. This gives a whole range of animals a home and habitat to live in. Plus, since gators snack on fruits, they’re also spreading the seeds throughout the environment, which helps the plants. The Gator Boys team use their alligator shows to get people to care about conserving the natural wetlands.
24. Alligator mothers are devoted to their little babies
Not only do alligators use sticks to lure in birds, the females also use them to build nests for their young, along with plants, leaves, and mud. The mound of decaying vegetation produces heat, which keeps the eggs warm. There, the eggs incubate for about 65 days.
The whole time, their mother is near, protecting the eggs. As soon as she hears the still-unhatched babies making teeny high pitched noises, she digs them out so they can hatch. Then the alligator mother carries the newborns in her jaws to the water. She protects them for about a year as they grow.
25. The temperature around alligator eggs determines if they hatch as male or female
While a human’s biological sex is determined (for the most part) by different chromosomes pairing up, alligators have evolved a completely different method. Depending on the temperature around the incubating eggs, they will either hatch as male or female. Warmer temperatures, aka above 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit, make male babies.
Temperatures below 82.4 degrees make females, while anything in between makes a mixed batch. In fact, several reptiles have their sex determined this way. As a result, some scientists are worried that a warming climate will make these animals have far more male babies than female, leading to fewer reproductive-age females.
26. To get mates, male alligators make water dance
Before the alligator mother even lays her egg, though, she is courted by males. To attract females, the males bellow and roar loudly, even though they don’t have vocal cords. The sound has a double meaning, because it’s also telling other males to stay away.
After the loud bellow, a male alligator submerges his back just a little under the water. Then, he produces a very low hum — an infrasonic sound — by vibrating his whole body. This vibration makes the water droplets jump and dance off his back. Females find this display very attractive. But really, who wouldn’t?
27. Alligators use a “death roll” on their prey
Alligators hunt with stealth, surprising their prey with their large jaws and 80 deadly teeth. Then, instead of using a knife and fork or just old-fashioned chewing, the alligator takes its prey for the death roll. Both alligators and crocodiles do this gruesome behavior.
These reptiles can’t chew, so when they catch a big animal they take it for a wild ride in the water. To rip off a piece of meat, the alligator holds tight with its jaws and quickly and violently spins its body in tight circles. The force generated from the death roll helps smaller alligators dismember large prey.
28. There are two species of alligators and one is on the brink of extinction
The American alligator’s scientific name is Alligator mississippiensis (try spelling that quickly out loud) and it’s only found in the United States. But there are actually only two species of alligator: the American and the Chinese alligator. The latter is much smaller, at about five feet long or shorter. In contrast, there are 15 species of true crocodiles.
While the American alligator is a conservation success story, the Chinese alligator is on the brink of extinction. They are critically endangered, with fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild. They’re forced to live in agricultural lands, because most of their habitat has been turned into rice paddies.
29. Alligators and crocodiles differ in a few specific ways
Alligators are often confused with their relatives the crocodiles, since the two can look very similar. So how do you tell them apart? Well, alligators have rounded snouts and black coloring compared to crocodiles’ narrow, pointy snouts and grayish green coloring. Plus, their teeth are a dead giveaway.
When an alligator’s mouth is closed, all of their top teeth are still visible, but none of their bottom teeth are. It’s a species-wide overbite. Crocodiles, however, show some top and some bottom teeth when their mouths are closed. Plus, crocodiles are far more dangerous to humans than alligators, so it is highly advised to stay away from them.
30. When you are face to face with an alligator, run away
So what do you do if you find yourself crossing paths with an alligator? Like Gabby says, they rarely hurt people, but about one person dies by alligator every three years in Florida. If you’re the better safe then sorry type of person, then maybe this will help you sleep at night.
If you’re within a distance that’s half the body length of the gator, on the mouth side of it, then back up and run away in a straight line. Of course, that’s if you’re on land, where the alligator does not have a home-field advantage. If you get bit, fight like your life depends on it (it does) and the alligator may let you go.
These creatures have much to teach us, and as Gabby knows, we can coexist with these amazing specimens with a little ‘gator know-how.