BROOKSVILLE, Fla. -- Twenty-five years of working with alligators has earned Ron Gard a nickname.
"They call me Gator Ron," he says holding a small alligator in his hands. But it's not Gard's gators that now have his neighbors on guard; it's a cougar named Charlie.
"He got out. He was physically out of that cage," says Mickey Milano, who has a home next door to Gard's place.
While the western mountain lion's main cage is double fenced, eight days ago, the 275 pounder broke through the single layer of fencing surrounding his feeding area. After bending back the wire and slipping out, the cougar killed Milano's pet beagle Fester that had wandered onto the property.
"I was really, really distraught," says Milano, upon hearing of her longtime pet's death. But while Milano mourns for Fester, she's more concerned about the safety of her 3-year-old granddaughter Emily, who often plays outside. "If this could happen to my pet, then what would happen if it was my granddaughter?" says Milano.
And Emily's mother, Ciara McReynold, also worries; so much so, that when she goes for walks she's armed.
"Yes, we have multiple guns that we carry," says McReynold, who lives just two doors down from Gard.
Gard has raised Charlie since the cat was just five days old. "You're my baby, yes you are," he says, scratching the cougar's cheeks like a house cat.
Gard insists Charlie is no danger to humans and he blames the incident on the dog.
"You've got a big cat and you've got a dog that was after his food and he was going to stop that dog any way he could," says Gard.
After the dog's death, Charlie stayed close to his cage and Gard was easily able to lead him back inside the enclosure.
Gard has since reinforced Charlie's cage and state wildlife officials say the cage and Gard's license to keep a cougar are in order.
However, because of the cougar's escape, a committee that works with wildlife officers will most likely review the state's regulations on cougar cages.
Hernando County officials also tell 10 News that Gard's property is not zoned for a big cat and in order to keep Charlie, Gard will have to apply for a special exemption.