Florida wildlife officials rule that kids' gator pool parties are unsafe

Lewis Gaff of the Alligator Attraction in Madeira Beach introduces kids to a 4-foot-long alligator named Burger at a child’s birthday pool party in St. Petersburg in May.
Lewis Gaff of the Alligator Attraction in Madeira Beach introduces kids to a 4-foot-long alligator named Burger at a child’s birthday pool party in St. Petersburg in May.
Published Oct. 4, 2012

MADEIRA BEACH — Invitations to the birthday pool party for 8-year-old Marshall Jones announced two special guests.

Friends and parents jumped into the water to photograph and swim with the pair, Cupcake and Burger, two gators from the Alligator Attraction in John's Pass.

"Not a single kid freaked out," said Chris Jones, Marshall's dad. "Not one."

But investigators at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission think "gator parties" are unsafe for kids and parents.

They have told Alligator Attraction, the Madeira Beach facility that houses 50 gators, a tortoise and koi fish, that alligators no longer will be allowed to swim freely in residential swimming pools.

The wildlife commission's decision came weeks after the "gator parties'' were featured in local media outlets, Good Morning America and the New York Daily News. For $175, workers at the Madeira Beach facility take alligators under 4 feet long to pool parties in Tampa Bay area and allow guests to hold and photograph them.

Then the phones started ringing. At least 10 complaints were filed with the wildlife commission.

One was a letter from the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, asking officials to "take a second look at this exhibition."

Investigators inspected Alligator Attraction on Wednesday and found no violations, said wildlife commission spokesman Officer Baryl Martin.

But investigators told workers that gators taken to pool parties had to be held or kept on a leash at all times.

In a letter sent to the animal rights group, investigators cited a state regulation saying handlers must keep captive wildlife "under rigid supervision and control in order to prevent injuries. … This poses a serious public safety risk and could result in scratching of persons, loosening of tape around its mouth, or unrestrained thrashing of its tail."

Bob Barrett, the facility's owner, said handlers already take the necessary precautions.

"Safety first, safety first, safety first, that's our three mottoes," Barrett said, but later added, "Whatever they want, we'll do."

Before the gators are placed inside the pool, he said, a handler speaks with party guests about precautions, such as no pulling or chasing the gators. The reptiles' jaws are bound with electric tape.

At Marshall's party, Jones said about five kids were allowed in the pool at a time to interact with the reptiles while the handler held the gator. Another gator is handled by a second worker outside the pool.

The gator swam freely in the pool only when the kids were out of the water, Jones said.

"Every single person in the party was blown away by it," he said. For weeks, Jones received calls from parents asking for photos.

Don Anthony, spokesman for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, said the parties are "a dumb thing to do."

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"Exposing little kids to the dangers of something as unpredictable as an alligator and putting an alligator into a completely unnatural environment," he said, "it's just not good for either."

A bite from an alligator, even a small one, could leave a disfiguring scar. A slap of a tail or a head butt could cause serious injuries, said University of Florida alligator biologist Kent Vliet.

He acknowledged that the size of the gator and the precautions by handlers may reduce danger.

But, Vliet said, "I have some concerns with the notion of having children in the water with alligators."

Marshall, however, enjoyed his pool party. Handlers gave him an alligator tooth for his birthday.

"He absolutely loved it," his father said.