Living the Dream: I’m a Wildlife Tour Guide in Florida
Paddling a kayak surrounded by alligators? All in a day's work.
How did you first become interested in eco-tourism?
That’s really something I’ve been interested in since I was a little kid. I grew up in western Massachusetts in an area that was very rural. I really didn’t play video games. I always wanted to be outside looking for snakes. I still remember that every time my dad would take me out fishing, sure I’d enjoy catching a fish or two but what I really liked is catching painted turtles. That was one of the first things that really got me interested in studying reptiles.
Tell me about your first job out of college.
I graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a degree in wildlife and fisheries conservation with a focus on herpetology, or the study of reptiles and amphibians.
During school I had interned at a laboratory in my hometown. They offered me a full-time position when I graduated. I was really grateful for the job and I had student loans to pay off and I wanted to put money away. I worked my way up and I was managing other people, but I was starting to feel trapped. At the end of the day, I was just staring at a screen all day pouring through numbers and numbers. It got to the point that I’d wake up and I didn’t want to go to work. I needed a change.
So you just left your job?
I did. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I just knew I didn’t want to do that. At that point I was 26 and I also felt like 30 was closing in on me and I didn’t want to hate my job. I think that triggered me that I wanted to do something drastic while I was still young.
My cousin was graduating and moving down to Florida and I thought, ‘What better time to go?’ We rented a house together and it made the decision a little bit easier, to have someone to go with me.
Were there other reasons why you wanted to go to Florida?
I’d always loved Florida. I used to subscribe to this reptile magazine as a kid and it seemed like a lot of the stories were located in Florida. The climate is just perfect for reptiles — it’s this subtropical paradise. Especially growing up in Massachusetts where it’s cold, I really wasn’t into winter activities; I was fascinated by snakes. And snakes aren’t really fans of the cold.
As a kid, I’d also done the typical Disney thing, probably when I was about 12 years-old. I went down with our family and I still remember I spent the vast majority of the time on the Disney boardwalk trying to catch lizards.
How did you come to be an eco-tourism guide?
I applied for jobs everywhere once I was in Florida – anything that had to do with animals. I applied to local zoos and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I’d set aside enough money so that I’d be fine if I were unemployed for awhile, but not broke. But after awhile without any prospects I started to apply to lab analyst jobs that were well beneath what I could do. I was getting to the point where I was frustrated and confused. My parents came down for a visit and I took my dad kayaking. I’d just googled, “Kayaking and Kissimmee” and the first thing that popped up was the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek.
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By chance, I met the owner there, John Jacobs, when he’d just barely opened the Paddling Center. We started talking about my background and he said he might have an opening for me. Back then , there were only a handful of employees, but it’s grown over the years. I think our close proximity to Disney and the other theme parks helps. Families are looking for a place that offers a chance to get into nature and to learn together.
What do you enjoy most about being an eco-tourism guide?
I love teaching people about wildlife and nature. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been looking for opportunities to help others understand more about nature, and especially reptiles. When I was in middle school, I’d take my pet turtles and snakes into the classrooms so the students could learn about reptiles.
Now, I get people all the time, where the kids have their faces in their phones, they’re grumpy and they don’t want to be here. And so I do my best to give them the best experience I can to get them to see wildlife in a new way. If I can get them to look at a snake or a turtle or an alligator out on the tour it makes it all worth it.
So … you’re not afraid of the alligators that you pass by during your eco-tourism trips?
Never, not at all. My guests are afraid enough for everybody. That’s one of the top five questions that people ask, “Are there any alligators on the tour?” Pretty much anywhere there’s water in Florida, there are alligators. But if you truly understand their behavior, then you understand how they operate and you can really rule out all fear. A lot of that fear comes from misunderstanding. Yes, it’s true that they have almost 3,000 pounds per bite of force, but they’re actually shy. We like to joke that they’re really swamp kittens.
I like to help our guests understand that too — how these alligators are really not out to get them.
Any advice for others considering becoming an eco-tourism guide?
Study. Get some books. Go to the local library. I spend a lot of time online just looking up different plants, animals, I’m always trying to learn more so I can answer any of the questions people may have during the tour. I take my job very seriously. In my free time, I’ll study. If I see a new bird, I’ll study it. I always want to make sure I’m able to help people learn while they’re on their tour.