By Joe Roberts @jrobertsjourno
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Videographer / director: Gerrit Messersmith
Producer: Joe Roberts, Ruby Coote
Editor: Tom Buckman
Andrew Biddle is an animal handler and co-curator at Wild Florida, an animal park in Kenansville, Florida, where he interacts one-on-one with huge gators, crocs, and even a panther.
The 32-year-old hosts daily shows with the park’s largest gator, ‘Crusher’, who weighs in at 1,000 pounds and measures a full 14 feet in length.
Andrew told Barcroft Studios: “The most important thing is never forgetting that you’re dealing with a potentially dangerous animal.
“The worst mistake you could ever make is to drop your guard. There’s kind of a saying working with dangerous animals: ‘it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when’.”
But the animal handler is keen to stress that large reptiles such as this are generally misunderstood by the public.
“The biggest misconception is that reptiles are scary and they want to eat us,” he said. “They’re very interesting fascinating animals, so we always try to do everything we can to inform people.”
The reptile expert also has an array of exotic animals at his home, where he lives with his wife, two sons, a 16-ft anaconda, otters, and their house-bobcat, Thanos.
Andrew said: “When people come over, whether it's friends or even the delivery guy, they're pretty shocked when they see some of the animals – we do get some pretty funny responses.“
The animal-enthusiast grew up in central Florida and has had a passion for reptiles and other creatures since he can remember.
Now, when Andrew isn’t taking care of Wild Florida’s various beasts, he and his wife Jessica tend to their personal collection of exotics, which they house on their own five-acre property.
“We have four different species of crocodilian,” Andrew explained. “We have quite a few large constrictors, a reticulated python, an anaconda, a Burmese python, a bobcat, a marble fox, along with various other small reptiles, iguanas, monitor lizards, and things like that.
“We’re not open to the public but we do take in rescued or injured animals and help with rehabilitation.”
Andrew’s wife Jessica and two sons Alex (five) and Jacob (seven) both help take care of the personal menagerie, with the boys taking a particular liking to one-year-old bobcat, Thanos.
“Jacob likes to be really involved with the bobcat,” said Andrew. “The bobcat sleeps in bed with him at night and if Alex is taking a bath, Thanos loves getting into the tub with Alex.”
Thanos has even learned to use the toilet, much to the delight of Andrew and his wife, who finds time between working as an ICU nurse and being a mother to tend to the animals alongside her husband.
“Jessica is very hands-on with all the animals here,” added Andrew. “She loves alligators and crocodiles. She's actually the one that usually feeds the crocodiles on a daily basis.”
The family’s pet alligators measure 5-ft at their longest, but at work, Andrew comes face-to-face with much larger beasts for the park’s daily gator shows.
And it’s the 14-ft Crusher, who has his own custom-built private pool, that always steals the show.
“He’s probably 65 years old,” said Andrew. “He was a nuisance trapped alligator, so he was brought to the park six years ago.
“Within a short period of time we were able to train him to the alligator he is now. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”
Training Crusher has paid off as Andrew has not yet had any accidents when performing with the giant gator.
He said: “There are some times where he’s a little pushy. Especially in the summer time. He‘s full of energy so he’s coming over quick and he might lunge up at me really fast.
“As long as I keep that respect for him, I haven’t had any accidents happen.“
But the handler is no stranger to such incidents, having been bitten on the hand by a 10-ft alligator four years ago.
Andrew explained: “He put one nice big tooth in my hand and shook my hand real good for what felt like 30 minutes, but was probably only a couple of seconds.”
“Luckily for me my wife is an ICU nurse, so she just cleaned me up and I was ready to go. But had I tried to pull my hand, I probably would have lost my thumb.”
The odd unplanned-bite aside, Andrew has established himself as a diligent and respected animal handler.
Christian, a reptile keeper at Wild Florida, said: “Andrew is really one of the best animal trainers I've ever met. I'm not just saying that, he really has a gentle respect for all the animals.
“All the time he’s put into the animals, it definitely shows, whether it’s interactions, feeding, husbandry, or the training. I learn a lot from him every day.”
Andrew also makes sure to do his part for conservation, educating the public and helping preserve the reptiles he is so passionate about.
“The kind of model we like to use is conservation through education,” he explained. “So it’s as simple as taking an alligator to a school and talking about alligator awareness.
“We obviously get involved in a lot of different fundraisers. We try to do as much as we can and also take in injured animals.
“Unfortunately the human race has a tendency to destroy things that it’s afraid of so if we can change people’s fear, especially when it comes to dangerous animals, to more of respect, that allows us to conserve that species.”