Native Village closes after decades of gator wrestling, wildlife education

By: Anthony Man

HOLLYWOOD — For more than 35 years, Native Village offered people and wildlife refuge from urbanization and technology.

The attraction, in the shadow of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, closed Sunday, its non-human inhabitants on their way to new homes and the people who formed a large, extended family of sorts fearing it can’t be replaced.

“This was Hollywood’s best kept secret, a piece of the Everglades that’s still in the middle of the city,” said Ian Anthony Tyson, the manager. “With all the apps and phones, there’s this place where they can come and get away from that kind of thing.”

People from around the world came to Native Village to see 100 different creatures, including snapping, slider, soft-shelled turtles; many kinds of fish, birds and venomous snakes; raccoons Paul and Betty, and, of course, alligators — all of which were described Sunday by barefoot tour guide Blake Kraus, 14, of Cooper City.

“It’s sad because this place is my second home,” he said.

Blake has spent virtually every weekend at Native Village since last summer, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the wildlife residents, and of Native American culture and customs represented at the village, which is on Seminole Tribe land.

There’s also a dose of Old Florida. Once a day, at least, visitors were treated to alligator wrestling. Some stars of the Animal Planet show “Gator Boys” trained at Native Village.

Tyson, 41, started coming to the village at age 15. He still wrestles gators as often as he can. “Once you jump on the back of an alligator, you’re thinking about when are you going to do it again,” he said, explaining it’s the kind of activity that helps a person “stay focused.”

Tyson said Native Village, which opened in 1977, learned about a month ago it would have to vacate, setting in motion a scramble to find homes for the wildlife and pack decades worth of materials. He and supporters hope they can find a new location and someday recreate what’s ending.

Native Village’s Facebook page said the tribe “has decided to take control of their land. … We leave in a good way and continue to consider ourselves friends of the Seminoles.”

Tyson said he didn’t know what would become of the two-acre site. Neither Did Gary Bitner, spokesman for the Seminole Tribe.

Though it’s on reservation land, Bitner said Native Village was a private attraction, not run by the tribe. In response to recent inquiries, he said he checked and couldn’t determine what would become of the property. “As far as I understand, the tribe has no plans for the land,” he said Sunday.

Native Village attracted 15 to 20 people on weekdays, triple that on weekends, Tyson said.

But for many, there was a feeling of extended family, said Randi Meshel of Hollywood, one of a group of four women who call themselves the “village moms.” She said there was crying on Sunday, the last day for “our home away from home.”

Potential volunteers, including kids, go through rigorous training — including cleanup work. They love it, Meshel said. They’re outdoors all day long on weekends, and not spending time on their electronic devices.

Charmaine Cahee, of Pembroke Pines, said it was impossible to resist. “The village sucks you in.”