Six-year-old Justin Dodd had just one question before he reached out his hand. - "He can't bite, can he?" Justin asked, pointing to the alligator in Steve Stiegler's arms. - "No way," Stiegler replied, pointing to the black tape binding the gator's jaws before inviting the youngster to pet the 4-foot critter.
Stiegler, an alligator management specialist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, proved to be a popular man Saturday at the Chinsegut Nature Center's annual Reptile and Amphibian Festival. Most of the morning found him surrounded by curious youngsters and adults alike.
"The questions are endless," Stiegler said. "But that's what I'm here for. The more people know, the better they'll get along with alligators."
Now in its ninth year, the free daylong event has become one of the center's most popular events, according to Chinsegut director Kristin Wood. An estimated 400 people turned out in the 90-degree heat for Saturday's event.
In addition to numerous wildlife booths and displays, youngsters were treated to reptile and amphibian puppet shows, as well as art activities.
Grownups turned most of their attention to several workshops, where experts spoke about native snakes, gopher tortoises, toads and frogs, as well as nonnative species such as Burmese pythons and Nile monitors.
Admitted nature lover Jenny Wirth said she wished more people would take note that such creatures don't always mean harm to humans.
"I hope one thing they learn is to show some respect," Wirth said. "And that the next time they see a snake crawling in their yard, they won't automatically kill it."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.