When Pam Wiley was a seven-year-old tomboy growing up along the St. Johns River she had great fun catching alligators. Her grandfather warned her that it was illegal to catch them.
“I didn’t really understand what that meant,” Pam says. “But when my grandfather said that the Mama alligator might come looking for her baby, I listened.”
Pam loved growing up on the river, fishing and hunting from her own jon boat. She even swam in the River.
“Alligators are not very aggressive,” she explained. “Unless they feel threatened because you’re in their territory or near their babies. You sure don’t want to be near any males during mating season in the spring.”
With her three older brothers, Pam also made friends with manatees, but alligators remained her first love.
Her friends call her “The Alligator Whisperer.”
After three children – two sons and a daughter – and other life tangents including working as a bakery delivery person and knee surgery in 2001, Pam got her wish: A “croccodylia” license from the Florida Wildlife Commission to raise alligators. The training for the license included learning care and feeding, handling and cleaning, and other aspects of raising alligators. A state inspector visits regularly to ensure that all of the requirements are being met.
“I’ve had other pets over the years,” she says. “Snakes, iguanas, bearded dragons, wild pigs, dogs and chickens.” But to her, alligators are the best pets.
“They’re my babies,” she coos holding Alli and kissing him on the snout.
Not only are Pam’s alligators pets, they’re performers and educators.
Pam and her husband, Ron Duboise, operate Swamp Fever Adventure Tours, an airboat tour company on Lake Panasoffkee, about 45 minutes west of The Villages. Hurricane Irma shut the business down for several weeks at the height of the season this year. The water level rose several feet and some of the alligator nests were flooded just as the young were about to hatch.
As part of the tour Pam brings out either Alli or Earl, mouth taped securely, and explains the likes and lives of alligators. The two animals are four years old, weigh about 25 pounds, are about four feet long and, at maturity, will be up to 15 feet long and weigh several hundred pounds. In captivity they will live for about 60 years, several years longer than wild alligators.
Determining the sex of young alligators is difficult, Pam explains. So, for a couple of years she thought Alli was female. Turns out that “she” is a “he.” But Alli responds to Pam calling out “Pretty girl” and Earl stops everything when she calls out “Pretty boy.”
After Pam’s talk, visitors can hold the gator and pose for photos. She carefully and slowly positions the alligator so that it is held securely by the visitor and asks people not to make loud noises or move suddenly.
Visitors are clearly fascinated. They make comments like “He’s not slimy,” “He’s so warm,” and “I can feel him breathing.” While some people are apprehensive at first, Pam quickly puts them at ease, speaking softly and adjusting their grip so that the alligator feels safe.
Alli and Earl, along with two-year-old alligators, Wyatt and Josephine, share a sturdy building known as The Den where each pair has their own large, specially constructed tank. Wyatt and Josephine are named after the famous Earp family of the Old West. “My brother and I love that movie and we’ve watched it together for years.”
“The routine is a heat lamp at night and UV lamp in the daytime,” Pam says. There is water and a raised platform for them to bask in the light. “I keep them very clean and the tanks are hosed out and sprayed often.” She feeds them Mazuri, a food blended especially for alligators.
Pam’s alligator pets were born on alligator farms, not captured from the wild. Alli and Earl were two-year-olds when she got them. The “Earps” were just-hatched babies. The two older alligators will continue to amaze visitors until they are about eight, reach sexual maturity and are retired. Then the younger pair will take over the job.
An ardent eco-warrior, Pam is also an activist for alligators and regularly writes and calls legislators in Tallahassee and local FWC officials requesting more patrols to enforce of the state game laws.
“The dinosaurs are gone, but the alligators have survived for millions of years. It’s been the state reptile since 1987. They’re legally protected. It’s a felony to take their eggs. But there are egg poachers operating on the lake,” she said.
She describes one incident where poachers seriously injured the mother alligator with a gig and raided her nest, taking the eggs. The eggs are usually sold to unscrupulous alligator farms. With the help of Pam and Ron, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has been able to capture some of the poachers.
“But the FWC is understaffed,” Pam says “And they can’t be everywhere at once. And the poachers are quick and clever.” If pursued they can drop the eggs into the lake, destroying the evidence. “Those dropped eggs won’t hatch,” Pam explains. “So, the eggs are wasted, we lose those babies and the poachers escape.”
She also certain that part of her role is that of a wildlife advocate and educator, bringing people and animals together. “You can’t mess with the ecosystem or abuse it,” she believes. “It’s part of the circle of life that affects all of us.”
After the visitors have all cautiously held Alli or Earl and the last photos are taken, Pam carefully retrieves her pet and begins to walk back toward The Den. The alligator starts swinging its powerful tail back and forth in protest. Pam stops and smiles.
“They want to stay and be held,” she says. “They want to stay and visit with the people.”
John W Prince is a writer and Villages resident. Learn more at www.GoMyStory.com.