Even state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers call him Gator Ron.
The moniker is stitched on his khaki safari-like shirt, borne on his license plate. Painted on his van and trailer are the words "Gator Encounters." The van warns in big letters: "Danger — Live Alligator."
Gator Ron is Ron Gard, who, with his wife, Lynn, has been collecting, rehabilitating, exhibiting and educating people about exotic animals for some 20 years.
His favorite: gators.
"I just love these little guys," he said as he provided a recent tour of Gard's Zoo, the couple's private enclave in the brushy countryside northeast of Brooksville.
Gard could say that, even as he pulled up a sleeve and showed his left elbow, which was healing from a bite by Toby, a gator that sank one of its teeth into Gard's bone.
"Surface puncture," Gard shrugged. "He's very frisky," the keeper admitted of the 4-foot-long reptile.
Also, mating season is coming on, which adds some aggressiveness.
It's not only the male gators that bring tension to the habitat. Toby and Agra, another young male, had to be removed to separate tanks when their pool mate, 3-year-old Dolly, feeling her own hormones, bit them recently.
"She's very mature for her age," Gard said, noting gators don't usually achieve sexual maturity until age 6 to 8.
The normally docile Dolly is the popular centerpiece of the Gard Zoo exhibit on Fridays at Howard's Flea Market on U.S. 19 in Homosassa and sometimes at local pet stores. Visitors can pet her, hold her, have their photo taken with her, if they can manage her 30-pound weight and her length of more than 4 feet.
Gard circled Dolly's in-ground fiberglass pool for nearly a half-hour, swishing a net through the murky water trying to catch her for a close-up look by visitors.
"They have very good hearing," Gard said, noting that the gator likely turned elusive at the sound of strange voices.
The princess of Gard's Zoo, indeed named Princess, is a 600-pound 9-footer, currently off to Croc Encounters in Tampa for breeding. For her return, the Gards intend to dig a bigger pond in which she can build her egg-laying nest.
Mammals come in for some love at the facility, chief among them Charlie, a 6-year-old Montana cougar of tawny coat and black-emblazoned face — 260 pounds of muscle. He mews like a large-throated house cat.
"Oh, he can growl," his adoptive father said.
The Gards bought him from a breeder at 5 days of age, raised and schooled him as a child. Lynn taught him soccer, securing him on a long leash and kicking a sturdy zoo ball to him. Charlie would pounce on it. Lynn would kick it from under him, and the pair would be off in chase.
He can jump 16 feet high and leap 40 feet through the air. His strength is said to be 10 times that of a human.
It was Charlie that brought the couple to Hernando County from South Florida six years ago. State law requires that a cougar be kept on no less than 2.5 acres. The Gards found a wild 5 acres that would house Charlie and their extensive menagerie.
A room in their modest mobile home houses small reptiles in glass aquariums: red-ear slider turtles (illegal to sell), a bearded dragon lizard, two frilled dragon lizards, two ball pythons and two baby gopher turtles. The gopher turtles will be released when they're big enough to survive in the wild.
The Gards have permits to keep and care for the animals, and work closely with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has pawned off some of its catches to them.
Outdoors again, Gard motioned to his "gatekeeper," a black-coated African miniature goat that he took on for an outlay of $5 "to cover the paperwork" when Hernando County Animal Services couldn't get a bid for it. The goat was scheduled to be euthanized.
Gard cringes at the thought of killing any animal. He took on two lion-headed rabbits from a neighbor and five brown-on-white and black-on-white rats, all of them previously scheduled as feed for snakes. He accepted a pair of pea fowl and nearly 100 chickens from a Florida island resident who couldn't keep them.
While Lynn, 62, suggests, "No more," Ron, 69, says, especially of gators, "We're always looking for more."
The Gards spend some $200 a week on animal feed, mostly fresh chicken parts and beef hearts. They are not subsidized and receive no grants. They rely on donations at their exhibits to help fund the effort to keep the animals fit. Ron draws Social Security; Lynn works at R&W HealthCare.
Ron wasn't always enamored with animals. The couple and their three daughters were staying at a rustic cabin in Tennessee 20 years ago when the girls, sleeping in the loft, reported sounds overhead. Ron figured it was a squirrel. He peeled back the insulation and came eye to eye with a snake.
"I hated snakes," he said.
He shot it with a snake pellet.
As he recounted his encounter to a cabin neighbor, the man said a pair of black snakes had lived in the ceiling for 20 years, raising their broods. They left every summer.
Gard felt bad that he had disrupted a family of snakes.
"That changed my life," he said.
He learned about snakes and began collecting them.
"I had about 60 snakes at one time, 20 of the most venomous snakes in the world," he said.
The house rule held that two people must be on hand at feeding time, one to make eye contact with the snake and one to feed. Gard violated that edict one day. A 10 1/2-foot black mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, oozed close to the aquarium lid, where Gard was trying to deliver a rat for feed. The rat got a toehold on the cage lid, and Gard was stuck.
"I knew I was going to die right there," he recounted.
Through centimeters of motion, Gard extracted the rat and managed to close the lid.
"I stood there shaking and not able to move for a half-hour," he said.
That closed the book on the snake enterprise.
The Gards have not opened their zoo to the public because it would require a monumental liability insurance policy, which they can't afford. And it would require costly property improvements, such as installing rest rooms. Habitats already are stoutly fenced and entries double-locked.
The Gards are content to tend, care, love and exhibit.
They did make one recent request.
When Ron Gard turned 69 last month, a son asked what he wanted for his birthday. Ron replied that he and his wife hadn't been off the property together in the last four years because they wouldn't leave the animals unattended. The son said, yes, he would come animal sit for a day.
Ron and Lynn Gard spent the entire day at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]