Big lizards and intimidating snakes
Frank’s father had talked with him often about college. He envisioned his son earning a degree from the University of Miami, the hometown school, but Frank was doubtful.
The two followed the NFL’s Miami Dolphins together and shared a heartfelt passion for the nearby Everglades National Park. They spent countless hours together when Francisco wasn’t working, discovering the wilderness and its creatures.
“When he was younger, he was a pretty fearless dude,” Frank says. “He always taught me how to approach big animals. He had a way with animals.”
Francisco taught Frank how to safely wrestle and subdue alligators that needed to be moved, and how to catch and handle the various snakes of the Everglades.
“We would remove pythons, chameleons, tortoises – anything that was invasive,” Frank says.
And then on one trip into the swamps with his father, the two made a find that would become monumental: the fossilized tooth of a very large animal.
“I thought, ‘This is really what I want to do, is work with fossils,'” Frank says. “‘If I’m ever going to school, this is what I’m going there for.'”
He was attending Miami-Dade at the time, but his career track at the junior college was pointing toward a job in fish and wildlife management rather than research. His interest in reptiles and love for the Everglades were driving his dreams – and not always in safe directions.
Frank’s father had taught him to approach alligators only on land, where they are less comfortable and more manageable. Then Frank went to the swamps with a friend from south Florida’s Miccosukee Tribe, who offered to show him another approach.
“He was teaching me this technique for calming gators down in the water,” Frank says. “I was watching from behind, and the gator came right at me – it hit me right in the chest.”
But his passions ultimately led to an unexpected – and opportune – intersection.
“I was working in a reptile store,” Frank says. “That’s where I met my wife. She was looking for snake food – little rodents.”