LAKELAND — There is one city employee who has been affectionately bestowed with the nicknames of “swan wrangler” and “The Swanfather” for his part in taking care of Lakeland’s mascots.
“For the last 14 or 15 years, I’ve been hanging off the front of the boat during the annual swan roundup,” said Steve Platt, the ground maintenance supervisor II for Lakeland’s downtown area. “I’m pretty sure that’s where the swan wrangler nickname came from.”
Platt, 45, has been helping take care of the city’s swans for nearly half of his life. He left a job with Publix to go to work for Lakeland’s Parks and Recreation Department more than 22 years ago. His first job assignment was to oversee the city’s shuffleboards and courts. Platt said he was quickly transferred to helping maintain Lake Morton, where the majority of Lakeland’s flock lives.
“It’s just kind of where I was put,” Platt said. “It was a wing and a prayer to learn.”
The Lakeland native said he has fond memories of going on school field trips to Lakeland Public Library and making a point of walking across the street to feed the birds. He has dozens of photos with the swans as many local families do.
“Being inquisitive I asked a lot of questions, found my answers and learned a lot about the bird,” Platt said. “That’s how it all came about.”
After years of watching the city’s annual Swan Roundup from the shore, Platt said he was eager for the opportunity to snag a spot on the boat. He had long coveted a position at the helm of one of Lakeland’s boats, being the individual hanging off the edge with a net to catch individual swans for their yearly medical checkup.
“I saw how much fun the guys were having every year,” he said. “They always looked forward to the Swan Roundup for that specific job. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be great’.”
Platt now oversees a crew of 15 employees who take care of all city-owned property in downtown Lakeland and the RP Funding Center. This includes feeding the swans three to five times a week, following up on any reports of injured birds and ensuring each swan receives veterinary care as needed.
“I’ve been out here as late as 7 or 8 in the evening, other times at 2, 3 or 4 a.m. in the morning,” Platt said. "It doesn’t matter. I’m always willing to come and make sure everyone’s okay.”
During the breeding season, Platt and his staff scout out the swan nests, erect barriers to keep the residents a safe distance away and keep a careful watch. In 2019, there were 21 cygnets born under Platt’s protection.
“The staff at Lake Morton, the downtown crew takes a lot of pride in working with and taking care of the swans,” Bob Donahay, Lakeland’s park director, said.
Both Donahay and Platt were distraught upon finding out the city’s first incubator-hatched black-necked swan cygnet was missing May 16. The cygnet had been put in one of the city’s pens on Lake Morton overnight to help it acclimate before its release.
“They are really protective of those birds,” Donahay said. “They adopt them almost like their own pets or kids.”