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Posted on Thu. Feb. 14, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

Finding love among dangerous critters

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To Ashley Lawrence, the word “crush” has more than a romantic meaning.

Sure, “crush” is what developed shortly after long-time boyfriend Christopher Gillette amused her enough for her to let him take her out.

But “crush” is also what an alligator could do to either one of them if they have a major mishap in their occupation – wrangling alligators for a nuisance-critter trapping company and Animal Planet’s No. 1 reality show, “Gator Boys.”

So, what’s a girl who spent her early teenage years in Fort Wayne doing up to her hips in Florida canals and Mississippi mud, nose-to-nose with scaly reptiles with ponderous jaws and very sharp teeth? Living out a love story – or two.

It turns out the tiny, flame-haired 25-year-old isn’t just in love with eminently crush-worthy Chris, who works with the owners of Gator Boys Alligator Rescue.

She’s also been handling captive wild animals for years – ever since she graduated from high school in Florida after attending Woodside Middle School and Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, where her Air Force dad, Master Sgt. Randy Lawrence, was stationed.

“People always ask me, ‘How did you get into handling alligators?’ I tell them I started as a tiger trainer and they just about fall over,” says Lawrence, who worked for five years for T.I.G.E.R.S., The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, at Jungle Island, an animal-based attraction in Miami, Fla.

“When it comes to animals in need or an animal’s life, it just energizes me. … It’s kind of my niche. It’s the thing I care passionately about,” she says.

Animals, Lawrence says, are also Gillette’s reason for being. She met him at Jungle Island, where she did interactive shows with animals that included tigers, wolves, orangutans and chimpanzees. One day, Chris – lanky, blue-eyed and blonde – came to see her show, just after doing his own performing, which included swimming with alligators.

The girls had been “explicitly warned” about staying away from the gator guys, who thought they were hot stuff because nobody else could do their jobs, Lawrence says. But there was something about a guy in a full wet suit, snorkel in his mouth, laughing and rooting her on that was irresistible.

“I had to go over and get his number,” she recalls. “I never had a boy make me laugh that hard in my life.”

The two were “just friends” for about three years, Lawrence says. On their first date, “which was pretty thrilling,” she recalls, Chris took her out to a levee to demonstrate his hobby.

As viewers of the show know, he enjoys handling whips, and controls them with Indiana Jones-like precision.

“I’d never seen a bullwhip before, and he’s out there cracking soda cans in half,” she relates. “I’m pretty much game to try anything, and … I asked if I could try, and he said, ‘Be careful, because these things can cut you right open.’ Well, I took the whip and cracked it on the first try.

“You could just see the little pink hearts above his head.”

Lawrence, though sometimes relegated to marketing work, has been known to hold her own with a gator or two. She says a big reason she got into wildlife work is that she was influenced by an ecology teacher she had at Homestead, Doug Waldman, now retired.

“He was an outstanding teacher who got the kids’ attention and made the possibility of working in the wild and doing studies of wildlife a realistic possibility,” says Lawrence, who was also in Homestead’s drama club.

She says she loved living in Fort Wayne. She recalls she was so upset when told the family was moving because her dad had been transferred again that she drew up a petition to her parents to let her stay. She had her friends and teachers and even her guidance counselor sign it.

The petition failed, she says.

Her father and mom, Andrea, now live in Michigan, as does her brother, Travis, 21, and sister, Marissa, 18. Her older sister, Courtney Lawrence, 29, and her son, Kyle, live in Fort Wayne.

Lawrence says she’s often approached by young girls who have been inspired by seeing her working with gators on TV.

“Girls will come up to me and say, ‘I want to do what you do.’ When they see me struggling with the other guys, they relate. They tell me, ‘I see how you persevere through the taunting and the teasing,’ and it goes straight to my heart,” she says.

“That I could inspire young girls – I didn’t see that coming.”

Lawrence says her relationship with Gillette hasn’t cooled, and “other people” are starting to put it into his head that they should get married.

“He’s so passionate about animals that I can’t see us not spending the next 25 years together,” she says, adding that she’d like to start her own animal rescue organization some day.

“Our life is very entwined,” she says.

Of all the experiences she’s had with gators, perhaps her most memorable was watching the lumbering beasts court each other.

“I don’t know if this is in the science books,” she says, “but I’ve witnessed this, and Chris has as well. It’s known that when they’re courting, alligators bellow, and it makes the water dance on their backs. But a more subtle thing they do is they rub noses with each other and blow bubbles.

“It’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” she says. “Like little dinosaurs blowing bubbles at each other.”

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