Silently sliding through the cattails and cypress knees, its eyes flare like coals from hell as the flashlight beam sweeps the inky surface of the water.

With jaws strong enough to crush a man’s skull, its body encased in armorlike hide, the ten-foot alligator is a survivor of the dinosaur age, a presence that both inspires and terrifies.

As long as folks have walked the sandy soils of the peninsula, somebody’s figured a way to make a buck off the creature the Spanish dubbed “el lagarto” or the lizard. Sure, the hides make great shoes, bags and belts and the meat is a delicacy, but it took a true marketing visionary to see 600 pounds of thrashing muscles and teeth as the perfect shape for a napkin holder or back scratcher.

It could hardly be voted most likely to succeed. It’s not close to cute, it’s not fuzzy and has never been considered cuddly. Turning a rodent into a Disney movie star is one thing. Getting people to embrace a cold- blooded meat-eating reptile has taken one heck of a sales pitch.

“Sure, it’s got lots of teeth and can swallow poodles like Vienna sausages, but that long shape is perfect for a doorstop,” one of Ponce de Leon’s tourist development officers may have reported. “Forget this Fountain of Youth stuff; just picture one of these rascals in glazed ceramic with its mouth open. You’ve got an ashtray. Why, the smoke can even roll from the nostrils. We’ll make a million and forget about finding the City of Gold.”

By the time Florida reached statehood in 1845, there was speculation that a little-known clause in the documents signed by President James K. Polk set a requirement that one in three souvenirs leaving the state carry an alligator likeness.

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