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  1. Environment

Meet the Florida man called in to catch Chicago gator Chance the Snapper

Florida alligator expert Frank Robb holds an alligator during a news conference, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Chicago. Robb captured the elusive alligator in a public lagoon at Humboldt Park early Tuesday. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Florida alligator expert Frank Robb holds an alligator during a news conference, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Chicago. Robb captured the elusive alligator in a public lagoon at Humboldt Park early Tuesday. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Published Jul. 17

TAMPA — Frank Robb has trapped thousands of gators, but even he said there is something special about Chance the Snapper, a 5-foot alligator who captivated Chicago during a week of freedom.

The gator was first spotted swimming in Humboldt Park Lagoon around 6:30 a.m. on July 9. Robb, a 39-year-old nuisance alligator trapper from Cocoa, watched as the animal developed a cult following, yet evaded capture.

Everyone seemed to have a suggestion: Entice him with chicken or peanut butter, use other animals to catch his attention, fly a drone to scour the 2.8 acres of ponds.

After five days, the Midwesterners were stumped. It was time to bring in a Florida man.

Florida sees your Chance the Snapper, Chicago. We raise you these 10 gator tales

Robb said he was surprised when Chicago Animal Care and Control called him Saturday morning. By Sunday evening, he was camped out at the lagoon, ready to catch his first gator outside of the Sunshine State. It was the Florida native's first trip to the Midwest.

The gator's notoriety had swelled to unpredictable proportions. Crowds gathered along the shore to catch a glimpse of his snout or tail. A salsa band wrote a song in honor of Humboldt Park's newest resident. Swag saluting the reptile popped up.

Chicagoans took to Twitter to name their new friend: Chance the Snapper garnered 67 percent of the vote, beating out Frank Lloyd Bite, Ruth Gator Ginsburg and Croc Obama.

Maricela George, 44, voted in the poll, followed the daily briefings from a local news station and shared updates with her coworkers. She and her husband took their two kids to the park Sunday to try to sneak a peek.

"There were people being bused in from the suburbs to come and see the alligator," George said. "It was just the excitement of it all. Let's go see if we can get a good look at an alligator, because you never see anything like that in a Chicago park."

Despite newly constructed signs warning guests to beware, almost all left without a single snout sighting. Chance the Snapper, it appeared, was not a fan of crowds.

"The first time I got here, there were a thousand people at the side of the lake because they wanted to see a sight of it," Robb said. "Even when the park closed, news choppers where flying around the lake.

"There were times I thought, 'This is going to be impossible.' "

There were challenges to trapping Chance — the animal was harassed by the attention, making his actions erratic — but there was also some freedom to working in a city unfamiliar with reptilian escapades. In Florida, Robb would be surrounded by other opinions and experts looking to weigh in. In Chicago, they left him to his work.

"There was no preconceived notions, like, 'Why aren't you doing this?' or 'Why didn't you try to push it from this angle?'" Robb said. "It was, 'This is the method I'm going to take, this is how we need to do it, and here's the plan.' "

Robb told officials what he needed and they obliged. The city, animal services and law enforcement were all on hand to assist Robb, including clearing the area and electricians cutting all the lights.

"Them shutting down the park was no easy thing," Robb said. "But for this to work out, it had to be done."

Finally, complete dark fell on the lagoon.

Robb waited hours, making lap after lap around the shore. Then, around 1:30 a.m., he caught a glimpse of his eyes.

"Once I was finally able to see the animal, it was a done deal," Robb said. "One catch and done."

Typically, Robb describes a good catch as one where he traps the animal and leaves without anyone knowing he was there. That wasn't possible in Chicago, where a loose gator was so unusual that people were overcome with affection and awaited any update.

Robb was caught off guard by the reaction. First came the press conference, where Robb lifted Chance to a chorus of cheers and "awws." He answered questions about the animal's health and the skills he used to subdue him.

Then came the request to throw the first pitch at the Cubs game Tuesday night. Oh, and would he do the city the honor of turning on Buckingham Fountain Wednesday morning?

Robb is set to fly home Thursday afternoon, but said he won't soon forget the kindness and generosity he found in Illinois.

"I've never in my life met kinder, more sincere people," Robb said. "This whole thing has been a blessing and grace of God. I truly mean that. I've been blessed with a gift and I'm happy to share that and do good."

He was happy, too, he said, to show a different side of "Florida Man" than those that typically grab headlines. Here was a northern city, wrestling with all it had against one of the most natural parts of Florida. With a single swipe, Robb brought an end to the weeklong saga.

When he saw the social media posts, satire columns and memes detailing his work, he laughed.

"Finally," Robb said, "A Florida Man meme that's actually not bad."

Robb isn't the only one coming back to Florida. Chance is being transferred Thursday to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, where Robb does research each month.

"He will be a rock star in St. Augustine," Robb said. "And I'm looking forward to seeing my buddy. That alligator and me are bonded for life."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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