Photo: Brian Smith
‘Alligator' Ron Bergeron is a Florida Icon
(Businessman; commissioner, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fort Lauderdale; age 70)
Yes, I wrassle alligators. It’s a Florida cultural thing, sort of like running with the bulls in Spain or fighting bulls in Mexico. That’s because, years ago, people ate alligators, so they would wrassle them, tie them up and keep them. They didn’t have refrigeration so when they were ready to eat them, they’d eat them. That’s how the culture started.
I actually lived in a house trailer until I was 41 years old, and I was a multi-millionaire at 25. Success was never about what it would buy me. Success is about achieving.
We didn’t have tennis courts and golf courses in Davie where I grew up. Actually, as a little boy, we didn’t know what those things were, but we knew what rodeo was.
Leadership to me is the skill of being able to form a consensus.
My grandfather took me on my first airboat ride when I was 3. I can still remember the way it felt, seeing the Everglades of God’s creation, the wildlife, the smells, the sunset. My grandfather introduced me to a beautiful world, and I fell in love with it.
I have a natural resort in the Big Cypress, and I let charities auction it off for people to spend the weekend with me. I introduce them to the beautiful Everglades. I always tell them, ‘If you want me to wrassle an alligator, I’ll wrassle one.’ So this one group, very prominent people, asked me. I went in the water and started to wrassle one and I missed his mouth. I’m on his back and he wrapped his tail around my left leg and deathrolled me with me on his back. He twisted around and got my hand in his mouth — 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. My audience thought this was part of the show. They were actually clapping. I had to use a technique of going his way, go to the bottom, because that’s where they want to bring you. They’ll calm down because they think they got you and he did calm down. I’m lying on the bottom of the lake and I had to trick him into biting the other hand and he went for it. He opened his mouth and I got my other hand out. Then I brought him to my stomach and, buddy, I could have whipped Superman’s ass. My adrenaline was pumping. I kicked my way to four foot of water, stood up, got his mouth shut and laid him on the shoreline. I said to the group, ‘Come on, let’s take a few pictures and then I’m going on to the hospital to get my fingers sewed back on.’
I went to Davie Elementary School, the oldest school in Broward County. It was built in 1917. You know when things happen now they lock the school down? Well, we had a panther sighting and I’ll never forget this — I was in the first grade — and they didn’t lock the school down. They let us go outside to look for the panther.
My family, on my mother’s side, entered Florida in the 1840s. And I have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so that’s eight generations of Floridians in my family.
It was the early 1960s, and I bought a bulldozer and started building driveways and house paths. The boom was coming. I started in business in 1962 and incorporated in 1965 — Bergeron Land Development.
I left home at 18 with $235 and 12 cents in my pocket. I got in an argument with my mom. She said she’s the boss under this roof and so I left. I ended up working at a gas station for 40 cents an hour and lived in the back. Took a bath in the sink. It was pretty tough there for a few months.
The grand slam of the Everglades is when a man or woman sees deer, turkeys, hogs, a bear and a panther all in one day.
I figured out where the highways were gonna come in the future. I actually got in a plane and looked at how they could connect up the major highways and I guessed perfect. I bought 50 acres of land and all of a sudden University Drive comes through. I continued to buy more land all my life.
For Everglades’ restoration to succeed, you have to decompartmentalize the system to where it has a natural flow from Lake Okeechobee to the central Everglades into Everglades National Park and on to Florida Bay. Every part has to have shared adversity, shared impacts and equalization of water levels.
When I first started rodeoing, I was about 18 years old. I rode bareback horses. That’s a young man’s sport there. As I got older, I took up roping, and I still rope today.
You need regulation, but to duplicate it four or five times makes it hard on businesspeople.
I’m a very happy man because I still do the same things I did when I had nothing. I may have a little better roping horse and a little nicer airboat, but the world I live in has never changed.
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