HUMBOLDT PARK — A year ago Thursday, before the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout, Chicago was gripped by a small alligator.
It was a national story. An alligator was spotted prowling the otherwise quiet Humboldt Park lagoon, setting off a week-long search that quickly brought on gator fever. A Block Club Chicago subscriber saw him while on a walk that morning and tipped us off.
For days, people from all over the city crowded the lagoon, hoping to get a glimpse of the gator and to enjoy a Chicago summer as the wayward reptile evaded capture. In states loaded with gators, people laughed at Chicago’s fascination — the same way we laugh when an inch of snow shuts down their cities.
It was love at first sight for Chicago, a weird, happy summer story the city could all get behind.
News crews flocked to the lagoon every morning. Music blared. Street vendors made cash. T-shirts were sold. Adults and kids alike craned their necks trying to spot him.
The gator, nicknamed Chance the Snapper by Block Club readers, was eventually caught by Florida gator trapper Frank Robb, who became an overnight sensation.
With Thursday marking one year since Chance was first spotted in the lagoon, we caught up with Robb to find out how Chicago’s favorite gator is doing and how Robb’s life has changed since the heroic capture.
Robb took his newfound celebrity well — and ran with it.
“I always knew I was a blessed person, I always knew that everything I had was due to the guy upstairs. It just reaffirmed that,” Robb said.
“I’m not that fancy. This is a lot more than me. I truly believe it’s all been the grace of God. I can’t be more thankful for the situations I’ve been put in.”
Much Bigger, More Active — But His Snout Remains Bent
When Chance was caught, he measured about 4 feet long. He had a bent snout and a shyness found in gators confined to small spaces. Robb and other experts have said Chance was someone’s pet gator, unleashed into the lagoon sometime shortly before he was spotted last summer.
Chance didn’t stay in Chicago long. After charming his way through a Humboldt Park Lagoon press conference with Robb and posing for pictures at the city’s Animal Care and Control center, he headed to Florida.
And since arriving at St. Augustine Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida, last summer, Chance has become a different animal.
Chance is no longer shy. In fact, it only took him a couple of weeks to warm up to people, Robb said. Now he’s “super active.”
“When he first got there, he was very, very, very shy. You could tell he had never been around people,” Robb said. “Once he got used to people, holy moly. I got a little worried wearing flip flops. He’ll trim your toenails for you. He comes right up to you. He’ll put his chin on the bank right beside you.”
Because Chance is fed and trained consistently, he has gotten a lot bigger — about 6 inches in length, which is a lot of growth for one year, Robb said. Gators grow to be 9-10 feet long, and Robb said Chance could grow to be 7-and-a-half feet long in a couple years if he continues on this track. Chance has also gained weight.
“In the wild, that might take 20 years, but whenever you’re getting fed right away and taken care of, he’s going to bulk up really fast,” Robb said.
“I went two-and-a-half months without seeing [Chance] and I was like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s been hitting the steroids.'”
John Brueggen, director of St. Augustine Alligator Farm, said Chance has taken to training “very well.”
“He responds very well when we go in there for food. He comes directly over and we can hand feed him,” Brueggen said.
Chance still has a bent snout — and that’ll never change, Robb said. But Robb said there are no disadvantages to having a bent snout. All it does, he said, is make Chance easy to identify.
Over the last year at the farm, Chance has spent his days basking in the sun, eating food pellets and working with trainers. Up until about a month ago, he was on exhibit with a few other gators at the very front of the farm.
Chance has easily been one of the biggest attractions at the Florida alligator farm since he arrived last summer, Robb said. Robb helps out at the farm and visits frequently.
“People are still asking about him nonstop. … There’s so much love for the little fella, but he’s not exactly a little fella anymore,” Robb said with a laugh.
All of the love could be getting to his head. The farm recently had to move Chance to his own pen after he started biting his “roommates” at feeding time. Robb said Chance had gotten much bigger than the other gators in his pen and was trying to show them who’s boss. The biting was playful — “like dogs playing” — but it warranted a break from other gators, Robb said.
“He just made sure they knew it all the time. Reminder: My name is Chance and I run this show. Y’all can visit, but I run the show,” Robb said.
Robb’s life changed when he pulled Chance out of the sleepy lagoon. “Alligator Robb” suddenly became a household name and the object of every news outlet in town.
The gator trapper was a Chicago hero and was treated as such. He was asked to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs game and to turn on Buckingham Fountain.
Robb said the strangest media request he received was from NBC. The TV station asked for pictures after he shaved his signature beard, to which Robb remembers replying, “I guess you can.” The story’s headline was See It: Gator Robb Nearly Unrecognizable Without His Beard.
Robb went on to visit Chicago 11 times, after never having stepped foot in the Midwest before Chance. He even started dating a woman in Chicago, which was also covered by the news.
Robb declined to say whether he still has a Chicago girlfriend, but he gushed about all of the people he’s met in Chicago, some of whom he’s stayed in contact with.
“I found nothing but kindness from every person I met. People in the parks department, law enforcement and people in the media. I’m still a nobody. They had no reason to to want to talk to me and everybody was kind. It was kindness, nothing but kindness,” Robb said.
Now Robb considers Chicago a “second home.” He even finds himself defending Chicago when people in Florida denigrate the city.
“It’s the same thing you hear about New York, L.A. — people there aren’t friendly, it’s a rough place, there’s a lot of crime,” Robb said. “There’s a lot of crime everywhere. There’s bad people everywhere. There’s great people everywhere. It’s what you make of it.”
Robb still primarily works as a gator trapper. He said this year has been busier than ever, perhaps because Florida saw a drought and then a huge dose of rain. (You can follow Robb’s trapper work here.)
But Chicago fame allowed Robb to pursue personal projects he never thought possible. He published a Chance the Snapper coloring book and is now in the middle of publishing a second book, an educational book about alligators.
He’s using crocodilian vocals to create music with a friend who’s a sound producer. The music, which is dropping soon, will benefit St. Augustine Alligator Farm.
At one point, Robb even teamed up with a production company on a TV show, but that deal has since fallen through due to the coronavirus pandemic. He said he’s “back looking for options on that again.”
Robb said he still routinely fields calls and messages about Chance even a year later. Over the holiday weekend, someone sent him a photo of the “Alligator Robb” bobblehead, asking why he wasn’t in Chicago anymore.
“Me and that little guy are connected forever,” Robb said of Chance. “I’ll always make sure he’s safe. He isn’t going anywhere. He’ll never have any worries.”
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