Adventure #3–Alligator Wrestling, Part 2

gatorpockets

Originally written 7/29/14.

Be sure to read Part 1: http://nerdseye.com/2015/08/24/adventure-3-alligator-wrestling-part-1/

While Ray and I were wandering around the reptile park, we passed an outdoor enclosure that had people in it, and we stopped to take a look. The enclosure was square, fenced in with a combination of wood, chain link, and what looked like aluminum siding. A pool of water took up most of the enclosure, with a dirt bank in one corner. There was a ring of old tires right at the edge of the water, making a lip around the pool.

The pool had maybe a dozen alligators in it, all between four and six feet long. Several men were standing on the dirt bank watching the alligators. One of them was an older man with gray hair and a mustache. He was wiry, looking very trim in his sunglasses, shorts, and black shirt, and there was something about him that made me wonder if he rode motorcycles. He seemed to be in charge of the group. There was a second man in a sleeveless t-shirt who reminded me of Ray except for the mustache; he seemed to be very knowledgeable, and I thought he might be an assistant. The other two guys were in their twenties, I would guess, and shirtless, showing off fit physiques and a number of tattoos (one of them had a whole scene on his side and back, showing a lighthouse, a shipwreck, and a ghostly woman’s face).

This had to be the 10:30 alligator wrestling class! We leaned on the fence, ready to enjoy a preview.

The older man and one of the young bucks walked out into the water, wading in it up to their knees as they approached the far fence. The student grabbed an alligator’s tail and dragged it backwards up onto the bank, where he then jumped on its back, following the teacher’s instructions. He put his hands around the back of the gator’s neck and leaned some of his weight onto his hands, pinning the animal in place while the others clapped and shouted encouragement.

My mouth dropped open. Oh, geez. There was suddenly a tightness in the pit of my stomach. THAT’S what I was going to be doing?

I suddenly had a lot more respect for Tahar the Alligator King. Out here, up close, the gator looked bigger than I had expected, and looked awfully real, not to mention pointy at one end. He did stay very still as the student dragged him up on the bank, but the stillness didn’t look like resignation; it looked more like he was trying to lull everybody into a false sense of security so he could whip around and snap somebody’s hand off.

I glanced over at Ray. Ray’s face had a greenish tinge, and he seemed to be having the same thoughts I was. Hurriedly, we pushed away from the fence and went to go look at something else—something preferably small and harmless.

What had we gotten ourselves into?

 gator1

When we were done looking around the park, we went back inside the gift shop and looked around at the t-shirts and knickknacks. One of the women behind the counter told us that our class would be meeting outside near the playground, so at 12 we walked out there and and watched some turtles and small gators swimming around in a big metal tank. There were two guys in their twenties out there, too, both wearing sunglasses and Crocodile Dundee-style leather hats. I wondered if they were part of our class.

The 10:30 class ran long, the assistant from that class told us in passing, so our instructor was late getting out to us—giving us plenty of time to get good and nervous. Why oh why had I thought this was a good idea? Even the two-foot alligators in the tank suddenly looked big and vicious, and the last thing I wanted to do was try to catch one.

At about 12:15, our instructor came out, damp and a little muddy from the end of the last class. It was the driver of the yellow car. No wonder he’d sounded authoritative! He was still barefoot, and now he was also sporting a shin guard on his left leg. I found the shin guard slightly ominous.

His name, he told us, was Drew, and during his day job he was a dog trainer in Gunnison, Colorado. On the weekends he came out and volunteered at the reptile park.

We introduced ourselves. The two other guys were indeed part of our class. Their names were Chris and Svan (pronounced like “swan” with a v instead of a w), and they were ranch hands on a ranch up in Fort Collins to the north of Denver. Both of them were pretty tall and looked strong. Chris had dark brown hair, tan skin, and a roundish face; Svan was blond and as pale-skinned as me, and when he took off his shirt later I worried that he was going to fry like an egg (I had coated myself in about a gallon of sunscreen on the car ride over to prevent that exact thing).

Drew got someone to take a picture of all of us together holding our hands up, “to show that we have all our fingers and toes,” he said. “For insurance. Just kidding—we don’t have any insurance.”

Ha ha. Colorado Gator’s macabre sense of humor didn’t seem quite so funny right at the moment.

Drew hopped into the metal tank we were standing near. It was maybe a dozen feet in diameter and three or four feet tall, made of steel that had once been painted blue. There was dirt and water inside to make a small pond, with rocks sticking out in one corner and planks of wood floating here and there for the resident turtles and gators to sun themselves on.

From this new platform, Drew thanked us for coming out and told us that we were helping Colorado Gators with a very important task: we were going to pull alligators out of the water so that Drew could look them over for injuries and treat them. Gators, he said, are not very nice to each other, and they can get bites and scratches that need attention. He would show us how to handle the alligators, and then with each one we would all help look it over for injuries.

There were two rules to handling gators, Drew told us. #1 was Don’t Hesitate. Alligators aren’t sensitive to human emotions like dogs, so they can’t “smell fear,” but they are fast and aggressive. Once you start to grab one, if you hesitate, they’ll either swim away or turn around and bite you. A pit bull, he said, exerts 230 pounds per square inch of bite pressure; an adult alligator exerts 2000. So you really don’t want to get bitten.

Rule #2 was Don’t Let Go. Alligators can move powerfully side to side, but they can’t twist their trunks or bend either backward or forward. Also, just like us, they can’t see directly behind them. This means that if you can pin a gator down with your hands behind its head, it can’t reach around to bite you. However, if it wiggles side to side and you let go of it, it can then spin around (which it does frighteningly fast) and take a chunk out of you. So don’t let go.

After giving us these very reassuring pieces of advice, Drew showed us how to pick up one of the 2-4 foot gators in the tank. He herded one of them against the metal wall of the tank and then put one hand behind its head and the other one on its tail. “Even this small, they’re strong,” he said, “so to keep hold of it, you have to pull it apart like an accordion.” I must have looked horrified, because he said, “It’s OK—you are not going to be able to hurt it. Gators are really tough.”

He then showed us how to safely put the gator back in the tank, by lowering it until it was flat in the water and then pushing it away from you as you took a step back. The step back was to get out of the way in case it felt like spinning around and chomping your shin. “No animal likes getting hauled to the vet,” he said, “but it’s necessary. When you have your gator, I’ll take a picture, and then you’ll keep holding while I look it over for injuries.”

Then he glanced between the four of us, apparently sizing us up. My heart was pounding in my chest, and Ray beside me was doing the same deep breathing exercises in through his nose and out through his mouth that I teach my dance students to do when they’re panicking before a competition. This was insane. Why were we doing this?

“Ladies first?” Drew asked.

No way was I going to look like a wuss in front of all the people now gathered around the tank. “Sure,” I said, and climbed into the tank.

Drew laughed and clapped his hands. “Oh, we are going to have a FUN class today!” he shouted.

I stood there in the lukewarm water, watching the various residents of the tank swim around me. Besides the six or so gators, there were a number of turtles, including two snapping turtles. I eyed the snapping turtles with distrust. One of them was pretty small, but the other one was about the size of my cat, and I remembered stories of how Bob the Alligator Snapping Turtle at the Denver Zoo was powerful enough to bite people’s fingers off. I really didn’t want my toes anywhere near this snapper.

Drew pointed to an alligator now swimming behind me. “How about that one?”

I turned around. The gator in question was surely about to graduate to the next tank. It looked huge. Also, its mouth was wide open, displaying tiny but sharp-looking white teeth, and it was hissing at me like a cartoon snake. I had no idea until that moment that gators could hiss.

“The one hissing at me?” I asked shakily. Eek!

But that one swam away before I could do anything, so we turned our attention to a much smaller one cruising around the wall of the tank.

“Go for it,” Drew said.

I looked at the gator. It was eyeing me distrustfully, as well it might. Sorry, little guy. “I’m supposed to grab it between the front legs and the head?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“OK.” Well, here went nothing.

Repeating Rule #1 over and over in my head—don’t hesitate, don’t hesitate—I bent down and grabbed the gator behind the head with my right hand, lifting it up and then grabbing the middle of its tail with my left hand. I lifted it out of the water. Suddenly, I was holding an alligator in my hands, an alligator that I had caught myself. Wow.

The gator’s skin was tough and bumpy, not unlike the surface of a tire but more leathery. It was warm from the sun, and I could feel it breathing underneath my hands. I felt a thrill go through me, a little connection between me and this living thing.

Drew took my picture with it, and then he looked it over for bites. While he was looking it over, it started wriggling, eager to get out of my hands.

“Pull him out like an accordion!” Drew said.

I didn’t want to tell him that I was trying. Maybe I needed to hit the arm weights at the gym when I got home. I pulled harder, and the gator stopped.

“He looks good. Let him go.”

I lowered the gator until he was right at the surface of the water and then, following Drew’s instructions, I pushed the gator away from me and stepped back. The gator swam away, only too eager to get as far away from me as possible. Everybody around the tank clapped. I felt awesome.

Svan and Chris followed, and then Ray. All of them got their gator, although there were some abortive attempts where the gator escaped just as the would-be wrestler bent to grab it, and everybody was taken by surprise (like I was) by how strong they were. When they wiggled side to side, trying to break your grip, they meant business.

Having passed our 2-4 foot tank test, we went on to our next challenge. Drew had told us all to take off our shoes before going into the first tank, so we padded barefoot down the concrete walkway through the building where Mr. Bo Mangles lived. We stopped in front of various exhibits while Drew told us about the animals in them (that’s how I learned some of the information I passed on in Part 1).

When we reached the tank with the alligator snapping turtle, Drew got in the tank and talked about the snappers, and about the caiman who lived there. I sincerely hoped we weren’t going to wrestle the caiman (we weren’t). Instead, Drew picked up the 60-pound alligator snapping turtle, a beast named Godzooky. Ray told me later that Godzooky was Godzilla’s cousin in this animated cartoon from the late 70’s. The turtle certainly looked like he might be related to Godzilla, big and primitive, and as soon as Drew picked him up he opened his bony mouth and kept it open, ready to chomp anybody who came too close.

“Does anybody want to hold Godzooky?” Drew asked.

I thought he was kidding. I shook my head emphatically.

But apparently he wasn’t kidding. “You moved first!” Drew said. “Get on in here.”

I climbed into the tank and stood beside Drew. “Put your hands inside the top shell diagonally across from each other, and then rest the back of his shell against your thighs.”

“OK,” I said, and did what he said. Drew let go. Geez, the turtle was heavy. No wonder they moved so slowly.

I had my picture taken, and then Drew told me to lower Godzooky into the water and let him go. Unfortunately, as soon as I unpropped the back of the turtle’s shell from my legs, I lost my balance (did I mention he was heavy?), and I broke Rule #2: I let go and dropped him. He splashed down into the tank with a horrible thump, and I gasped.

Oh, no! I felt awful. “Is he all right?” I asked, bending over to peer at the turtle. He seemed to be OK, swimming around, and nothing looked cracked or broken. Thank goodness. But boy, did I feel like I had taken myself to the bottom of the class. I’m sorry, you fail: you broke our turtle.

The guys all then took their turns holding Godzooky, except for Ray, who said, “No, thanks, I’m good.” Ray doesn’t like water very much, and he was definitely not enjoying the class as much as I was.

From the snapper tank, we walked outside to the 4-6 foot enclosure, the same one that Ray and I had watched earlier. Drew let us in through a gate in the fence and we all went in, walking barefoot across the hot, hard-packed dirt. I heard a hissing noise behind me and jumped; a gator had crawled up next to the fence and was letting us know that he didn’t appreciate us being that close to him.

 gatordelicious

“You know,” Ray remarked, “I think I’m good. I’ll just watch while the rest of you guys do this part.”

Drew explained to us that with the bigger gators, we weren’t going to be able to pick them up like we did with the little ones. Instead, we were going to wade into the pool and grab an alligator by the tail before pulling them backwards onto the bank. That was going to be possible, he said, because the alligators’ armor plating didn’t have a lot of nerve endings in it, so they weren’t sensitive to touch. He reminded us of Rules #1 and #2. Also, he said, while the alligators couldn’t twist to get out of our grasp, they could spin around to one side to try to get us, and if they did that we needed to “dance” (his word) away from them to the other side.

Sure. Great. No problem.

Then Drew told us that this size alligator was the most dangerous, because they were big enough to do a lot of damage, but small enough to be really fast.

I had to be out of my mind. I wiped my sweaty palms on the side of my shorts.

By that time, the three women who had ridden in the yellow car had joined us. They had taken the earlier class but had to stick around because they were traveling back with Drew, so they decided they might as well hang around with us. One of them, a slender, short-haired woman in her twenties named Ginger, told all of us (as we stood there staring at the gators in the pond) that she was terrified of water and aquatic animals, so if she could do it, we all could, too.

That made me feel better. I actually would have volunteered to go first, but Svan had already peeled off his shirt and was wading into the pool. We watched him snatch at a tail and miss, the alligator wriggling away.

When he finally got his gator tail and pulled the animal back out onto the bank, he was talking to it. “That’s right, girlfriend. Settle! Settle down! You ain’t going nowhere. I’ve got you, and that’s how it’s going to be.” He sat down on the gator’s back, put his hands behind the gator’s neck, and pushed it firmly down into the dirt to pin it, all at Drew’s direction. Then he laced his fingers in front of the gator’s neck and pulled its head back, because in that position (which doesn’t hurt the gator), the gator can’t do anything to get away.

Drew took a picture and then told Svan to put the gator back down so we could all look it over. Armed with paper towels and a tube of waterproof antibiotic ointment, we found all the bites and scrapes along the alligator’s hide, wiped the mud clear, and applied ointment, like a crazy cross between a NASCAR pit crew and a team of EMTs. And boy, there were A LOT of bites. Drew hadn’t been kidding.
That done, Svan let the gator go, and it crawled back to the water and disappeared.

It was my turn.

I waded out into the pool, shuffling my feet along the sandy bottom like Drew had instructed (“keep your feet low” was another rule; stepping on an alligator wasn’t going to end well for anybody). Drew was next to me, as he had been with Svan, acting as both guide and buffer. We walked toward the far fence, where several alligators were sunning themselves.

“That one looks good,” he said, pointing to one of them. “Go ahead and grab it.”

“Uh…” I looked at the next gator over, who seemed uncomfortably close to me. “I don’t want to get too close to this guy, though, do I?”

“It’s just an alligator,” said Drew, and everybody laughed.

Oh, yeah. Just an alligator.

Well, I had signed up for this. Squaring my shoulders, I reached down and grabbed the alligator’s tail. It just lay there and let me touch it, which surprised me. The tail was thick, like a scaly club, and my fingers didn’t go all the way around it. I probably should have grabbed a little closer to the end. Anyway, I had a hold of it. I pulled.

Nothing happened, except the gator realized that I was yanking on it. Good grief, was the alligator heavy. And strong. I pulled again with my arms, but the gator decided it didn’t really want to go with me and started to crawl forward, lashing its tail back and forth at the same time. I wasn’t prepared at all for the strength of its tail.

“Go, go, go!” said Drew. “Pull! What—do you think he’s just going to let you do it?”

There was no way—NO WAY—I was going to let go of that tail, not after dropping the turtle earlier. I squeezed for all I was worth. “No!” I panted, fighting the thrashing tail. “I’m just not very strong.”

I was not making any headway. The gator felt like a wiggling 2-ton weight. But then, all of a sudden, my feet gained traction in the bottom of the pool and I was able to take a step backward. It was like magic. I found myself walking back towards the edge of the pool, dragging the alligator across the top of the water in front of me like a deranged pool toy. Behind me, I heard my classmates clapping and shouting encouragement, and I pulled the gator onto the bank.

“Pull it towards you and drop!” shouted Drew.

I was supposed to sit on the base of the gator’s tail, right where it joined the body, and then put my hands behind the gator’s neck to push it down. That did not go quite according to plan. I sat down, but the gator squirted out from under me, making a short-legged dash towards freedom. No, no, no! I was not going to let that happen. I hurled myself forward onto the gator’s back (which is NOT what I was supposed to do) and fumbled for its neck.

“No, no, no!” yelled Drew, as my face came down right on top of the gator’s nose. “Head up! Like a horse!”

I somehow managed to sit up, dropping my butt onto the gator’s tail, and when I looked down, my hands were in the right position behind its head. Whoa. I did it! The gator still thought it had a chance, though, and kept crawling forward until I was finally able to lace my fingers together in front of its neck and lift its head off the ground.

Yay!

I stayed there while the others put antibiotic ointment on the various bites, and then Drew talked me through my dismount: I had to leave my hands where they were, get my feet under me, stand up, and then push the gator forward while jumping back. Luckily, my gator wasn’t the vengeful kind—all it wanted to do was go back to sunning itself against the fence. I stood up and it crawled away.

Everybody cheered. I felt like a rock star.

Chris went next, and then it was Ray’s turn. But Ray’s enthusiasm for the project, already virtually nil, had been even further diminished by watching the rest of us thrash around in the water. “Nope,” he said. “I’m good.”

“Come on, Ray,” said Drew. “I’ve only had to give out the Sir Robin Award for Cowardice once in my five years as instructor, and I’m not giving it out today.” (Nice Monty Python reference!)

“I’m OK with the Sir Robin Award,” said Ray.

“No. Come on.”

Everybody pitched in, trying to talk Ray into it. I was amazed at how positive and encouraging the group was. It wasn’t so surprising from Ginger and Alex, the two women from the previous class, but it really did surprise me that Svan and Chris, the two ranch hands, were being supportive rather than giving Ray crap. That was actually my experience the whole day—the class felt like being on a team.

“Look,” said Drew finally. “There’s a gator in here named Stevie who I really need to look at, because he had to have a leg amputated by a vet recently. He’s blind, so he won’t give you much trouble. Come help me with him, will you?”

Reluctantly, Ray waded into the water with Drew toward where Stevie had been floating the whole time, apparently perfectly content. He took Stevie’s tail, which Stevie didn’t bat an eye at, and pulled Stevie out of the water. Even then, though, Ray was less than excited about sitting down on the alligator’s back. Drew had to count “1-2-3 go” twice before Ray finally knelt down on Stevie’s tail. Everybody cheered. Stevie seemed resigned, and he mostly just lay there while Drew looked him over.

It was after one o’clock by then, and the day was heating up. The dirt I walked on was uncomfortably warm under my feet. We went through the gate and on to the pond next door, where the alligators were 6-8 feet long. I looked at them over the mismatched material of the fence and wondered, Where is the gate?

It turned out there wasn’t one. Instead, we had to climb over the fence, which was four feet tall. The barrier was mostly made of plastic siding with wood here and there, and there was a cinder block which I could use as a stepstool to hoist myself up. But on the other side, the only footrest was a long strip of aluminum, apparently attached as a support. There were two-inch-long screws sticking out of the aluminum every couple feet, and the metal sizzled in the hot sun like the surface of a frying pan. As if wrestling alligators wasn’t enough of a challenge.

I made it over the fence without either impaling myself on a screw or burning my foot, so that was a success. Drew put his hands on the top and vaulted over it like a stuntman, which made me envious. I wish I could do that. Ray didn’t even come over, but stayed outside, leaning on the top of the fence. He told us that if stayed out there we couldn’t make him grab an alligator.

The enclosure was very similar to the one next door, except for the size of the inhabitants: dirt bank, pool taking up most of the space, tires around the edge of the pool. Our wrestling technique was going to be the same, too, except, since the gators were bigger, heavier, and stronger, we were going to need to put our feet up under the gators’ front legs to help push the tail down in back.

Okay. I’d gained some confidence from the last gator encounter, and even though I was a little nervous, I felt like I could do it. Just as I was thinking that, I stepped on something sharp and bent down to see what it was. It was a huge alligator vertebra half-buried in the dirt. Oh, geez.

Drew picked our order this time. Chris went first, then Svan. Then it was my turn.

Stay tuned for Part 3!