CHICAGO — Crocodilian expert Frank Robb gained instant fame after he captured the elusive Chance the Snapper less than 24 hours after he arrived at the Humboldt Park Lagoon.
But how did he do it? It turns out, by speaking Chance's language. Robb has been mastering alligator calls since he was a child. It started as a powerful lesson passed down by his Uncle Bill Robb, who taught Frank the family trade.
“I felt a sense of responsibility, but at the same time, Frank had to hold his own, too,” Bill said. “He just seems to have that conservation ethic. He always has. He started working with me when he was in high school, and he is just extraordinary.”
As a teen, Frank set out on his first alligator catch. Over the years, he said he would regularly collect them from properties in the area, and began to make a name for himself with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“It’s one of those things where you grow up being around these animals and not necessarily knowing what you can get away with. It’s knowing to have a genuine respect for them,” Frank said. “It kind of meandered itself into a career of sorts, I reckon.”
So when Chicago called Florida for advice dealing with its alligator problem, and the state recommended Frank Robb, he did not hesitate. He jumped on a plane to help nab Chance the Snapper from the Humboldt Park Lagoon.
“Anybody that thinks catching alligators for a living is easy, they are strongly mistaken. It’s very mentally taxing, and it’s very physically taxing all the time,” Frank said. “Whenever you can save something’s life, it’s a very warm fuzzy feeling.”
So how did he so quickly find the elusive gator that had been the talk of the town and the subject of intensive searches for a little more than a week? Frank spoke his language and called him!
“Chance didn’t talk back to me, of course, but he responded to the vocals and came out of where he was hiding and gave me a chance to catch him," Frank said. "And, you’ve seen Chance, he’s a pretty thick little fella. He was trying to swim off, and I was able to reach down there in that water and grab a front arm and back arm, stuck his tail between my legs.”
The specific alligator vocalization that helped Frank nab Chance actually began at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, the result of research with fellow crocodile specialist group member Jen Brueggen.
“Breaking out of the nest, they are talking to each other. And when they find themselves in danger, they’ll release a vocalization to call mom, or even sometimes dad, over to help them out,” Brueggen said.
Working with an audio team, Frank meticulously records each sound made by the tiny crocodilians. Then he masters the call.
“That’s how I work every day. It’s a tool I have in my toolbox, so I’ll use that in order to get the animal to present himself in order to be caught," Frank said.
And it doesn’t just work on the babies. Frank calls to the big guys, and within seconds they come. Gators resting in an enclosure hear his call, and suddenly there are gators at his feet.
"There’s so many different types of calls. There’s distress calls, there’s happy calls, there’s sad calls, there’s, ‘I’m angry at the world' calls, ‘Hey, there you are, you’re new to this pond, let me say hello to you,’ kind of calls,” Frank said. "For the vast majority it will make them pretty much jump right in your lap!”
His strategy is not just based in science, it's also helping further scientific research. Alligators don’t succumb to viruses or bacteria, rarely get cancer, and they have the same endocrine system as humans.
“The American alligator’s endocrine system is 99.9 percent the same as ours. Which is kind of bizarre to think about that, but, yeah, it’s true. They may eventually be the cure for cancer and AIDS and everything else,” Frank said.
But to aid that study, Frank needs to protect the species and promote the possibilities. And just by chance, a star alligator from Chicago, now living peacefully at St. Augustine, is shining light on his work.
“I couldn’t ask more for him to be here in a place where he’ll never have any worries ever again. You wait, you give it a few years, he’s gonna be a boss," Frank said.
Chance has grown four inches since coming to St. Augustine, and a little more than four feet now. Frank says he could be a 12-foot alligator when he’s fully grown.
More from Robb on the Bair Facts podcast: