Growing up on a farm near Culver in northern Indiana, Bonnie Neidlinger was always an outdoors person. She loved animals, but no one would have guessed she would several decades later be raising and telling people about young alligators.
“i’ve always loved animals,” said Bonnie Neidlinger, as she gently held a baby alligator in her hand, and showed it to a group of people, who were waiting to head out onto Central Florida’s Lake Rosalie for an airboat nature tour of the northern reaches of the Everglades.
Bonnie grew up spending most of her time outdoors on the family Indiana farm near Culver. She served as a 4-H leader, and was introduced to the care of exotic animals by her father-in-law. About a half dozen years ago when she and her husband, Wayne took over operation of an airboat nature tour business, she took it upon herself to learn as much as she could about gators.
She was a quick learner. Now she has three young gators (she is licensed to care for gators, a protected species), which she uses to educate visitors about what probably is Florida’s most famous animal.
As she held up a young gator named Trixie, she said the 18-inch reptile is her baby. “She thinks I am her mom,” she added. “When I pick her up, she knows it is me.”
Bonnie always has loved animals. “When I was a young girl on the farm, I had chores. One of them was to feed the chickens. But, I never considered it a chore. I loved feeding them,” she explained.
After she married Wayne, she was introduced to exotic animals. Her father-in-law, Ralph Neidlinger raised many. He started with deer, but then came small animals, followed by a buffalo, red ox, a baby cougar, mountain lion cub, and probably some others Bonnie doesn’t recall.
For Bonnie, her most exotic animal adventure (at least before alligators) involved bottle feeding a baby bear and raising it on the farm until it was three years old. As an adult male, it went to a man near Indianapolis, who raises bears.
Bonnie’s alligator presentation serves as an introduction for the airboat tours, where visitors can expect to see gators most days. Occasionally on a cold winter day, the gators may be hard to find. Gators are a key part of nature in Florida. While it may be a bit of exaggeration, it is said anywhere there is water in Florida there are alligators.
While Captain Fred’s Airboat Nature Tours (the name of Bonnie and Wayne’s business) gives visitors a chance to see dozens of beautiful birds, animals and plants, alligators probably is the one thing most people want to observe.
Viewing gators in the wild, one would think they would never be tranquil like a pet, but Bonnie has been able to calm the youngsters. “Gators will bond with humans,” explained Bonnie. As she shows a young girl how to hold Trixie, she calls the animal “sweet”. Then she adds. “when I first get them they aren’t as sweet...they are not friendly, but it doesn’t take long for them to get to know me.”
In the wild, a female gator has about 50 young. “If after a year, she has 10 percent survive, she has done well,” says Bonnie.
However, alligators can grow to more than a dozen feet in length. They have been described as living fossils, having been extant for 200 million years, predating dinosaurs.
Bonnie’s young gators come from a Florida gator farm, where the animals are raised commercially. When they get larger, they are returned to the farm and Bonnie obtains new young to start the process again.
Bonnie’s husband, Wayne serves and airboat captain and guide. And like his wife, he grew up on an Indiana farm and has always loved nature. He learned the airboat tour business from his cousin, Fred Neidlinger, and other former Hoosier.
Gator’s are a key attraction on the boat trips, but Wayne points out many birds and other wildlife and plants as the boat winds its way around the lake. Frequently, eagles are spotted along the way.
While Bonnie and Wayne now spend most of their time in Florida, they still maintain their farm near Culver and make several trips back and forth each year.