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    Man's first visitor when he opens shop: a gator

    After being initially startled, the man grew attached to it, he says. A crowd gathered to watch as a Fish and Game officer carried the reptile away.

    [Times photo: John Pendygraft]
    Eddie Brown, 20, tries to get the gator's attention as a crowd gathered to gawk at the reptile. "I would have freaked if I had found him," Brown said.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


    LARGO -- Fred Hansen got a shock when he arrived at work Thursday morning.

    Hansen, who sells and services appliances, was in his shop, working on the electric lines of an ice machine when he heard a hissing sound coming from a darkened corner.

    Hansen looked down and saw a strange pair of eyes trained on him.

    "He lunged at me and scurried on behind the appliances," said Hansen, 36, owner of Hansen's Service Appliance at 1997 Ridge Road. "It shocked the daylights out of me."

    The "he" and "it" was a 21/2-foot alligator that had found its way into the shop. The store closed at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and no one knew where it came from.

    Hansen called 911, but was told to contact the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

    But by the time an officer from that agency arrived to scoop up the gator, Hansen had grown fond of it.

    "I wanted to keep it," he said.

    The alligator, a surly looking gray-and-beige creature, had a following of curious friends, awe-struck passers-by and reporters who gathered at the shop to get a glimpse.

    "It's a cute-looking fellow," said Paul Watson, 78, drawn by the commotion as he walked to his mobile home. "Mean-looking, though."

    Hansen's wife, Janet, who also works in the shop, wanted no part of it. Neither did her friend, Nichelle Finchan, whom Mrs. Hansen had telephoned. Mrs. Hansen folded her arms and quickly walked away from the alligator as it was being carried away by Fish and Game Officer Chris T. Jones. Finchan stared at the alligator from afar, her knees atop a washing machine where she could get a clear, safe look.

    "Finding it in your pool is one thing, but finding it in your place of business is quite another," said Mrs. Hansen, 36.

    Two men from an air-conditioning servicing company owned by Hansen's brother joined the shopkeeper in some lighthearted machismo. At one moment, they mocked Steve Irwin, the gregarious star of the cable television show Crocodile Hunter, known for his daredevil techniques to catch reptiles and his Australian accent. They later bragged they could corral the alligator without any help.

    "He'd probably grab a finger," said Eddie Brown, 20.

    "But I'd hate to lose a finger," Hansen said.

    At times, the alligator appeared ready to oblige. It occasionally hissed at the onlookers, spreading its front legs, looking as if it were ready to attack. Hansen prodded it by tapping on the front window, prompting the alligator to snap its long tail and run in a circle.

    After about an hour, Jones used a rope and a metal rod to capture the animal.

    The alligator didn't put up much of a fight.

    Jones said he would take the animal to an undisclosed site in Palm Harbor and set it free. He said an alligator bite could cause serious damage because of the bacteria in its mouth.

    With the rising waters from heavy rains, Jones said he catches two or three alligators a week.

    "Just another day at the office," he said.

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