The Gator People!

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Bob Freer and his wife like to spend cozy evenings watching TV with a couple of Florida bobcats curled at their feet. Their house, once the Outpost's gift shop and commissary, is crammed with gatorabilia: antique gator-hide purses, a gator-skin vest, the carved crocodile prow of an African canoe, Florida photographs, cabinets dense with vintage alligator post cards, gator-skin briefcases, and antique baby gators mounted and dressed in full costume as a ship's captain, a pirate, and a colonial soldier. It's like looking at one of those puzzles in which shapes hidden in a pattern become gradually visible. You don't realize until you've stood in their living room a while that there are gators everywhere.

For Gator People, such is domestic bliss.

To keep the adrenaline flowing, Freer hauls two hot-air balloon baskets hooked to the back of his camouflage-splotched van. Ballooning once with just a propane canister strapped to his back, his balloon burst a seam and started to spiral at 1,000 feet — what folks in the balloon world call a "terminal descent."

"I looked down," Freer says, "and I swear I couldn't see anything but crisscrossing power lines underneath me. And I've got a ten-gallon propane bomb on my back. I thought, 'OK, I'm dead.' But something happened, and I just relaxed. 'Enjoy the ride,' I said to myself. I landed in the middle of a giant oak tree — the only big oak tree anywhere for miles. Every branch I hit broke my fall until finally I was just swinging from one of the bottom limbs. I looked down, and people were on the ground with their cameras taking pictures."

A building housing a laundry business was under the tree. Freer's balloon settled on its roof. "I always thought it was funny the sign on that building. I could just read the part that said 'ironed and folded.' "

Freer didn't stay ironed and folded long. During a mud-hole wrestle with a feisty, full-grown bull gator who'd run amok at Parrot Jungle, Freer emerged after many 360-degree rolls with both the gator and a serious infection that required permanent tubes in his ears. But he still hears the call of the wild, and his empathy for creatures in need is pitch-perfect. He accumulates humans the way he collects other animals and garage-sale alligator belts. For 14-year-old Jeanette Rivera, meeting Freer was a fantasy come true: an adventure-loving father figure complete with his own zoo. "Bob is my second family," she says simply.

There's always someone camped on Freer's couch, Deborah Thibos says, "some kid who's been kicked out by his parents or somebody out of work with no place to go. He takes in anybody who's at a crossroads."

He's a real alligator person. He communes with big reptiles as symbiotically as a human can. He wrestles them and pets them in his living room, yet he respects their otherness. He lives deep in a swamp, where he's been lured by the pattern that connects all creatures. And if he has to stitch it himself, he will.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd