Adventure #3–Alligator Wrestling, Part 3

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Originally written 7/29/14.

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

Part 2: http://nerdseye.com/2015/08/25/adventure-3-alligator-wrestling-part-2/

As I waded into the pool full of 6-8-foot alligators, Drew pointed out a gator hanging out near the wall. Unlike the other alligators, who were all black, this alligator had yellow stripes, and his back arched up out of the water like a mound.

“That’s Hunchback Oregon,” Drew said. He told us that baby alligators all have yellow stripes to help them stay camouflaged, since other animals eat them when they’re small. The stripes fade over time when the gator’s skin gets exposed to sunlight. That means that only an alligator raised indoors will still have stripes when it’s 6-8 feet long. Also, Hunchback Oregon’s rounded back showed that he was kept in a cage that was too small for him, so that as he grew, his body wasn’t able to straighten out fully.

He said that more than 100 of the alligators at the reptile park were rescues, and many of them had similar deformities. It made me glad that there was an organization like this one that took care of unwanted reptile ex-pets.

It was now time for me to catch my 6-foot gator. Drew pointed out one that was completely submerged near the far fence, and I reached down and grabbed the tip of her tail. She didn’t move, so (having learned from my previous experience) I braced my arms and started to walk backwards, using my legs to move the gator. The gator began to glide with me. Yay! However, after about two steps, she decided that she didn’t really want to make the trip. She thrashed her tail side to side, splashing up water in a spray all around me.

When I did some research for this blog post, I couldn’t find any reliable information on how much a 6-8-foot gator weighs; I got answers anywhere from 50 pounds to a 250. All I can say is that my alligator felt really heavy and really, really strong. I hung on to the tail for dear life, feeling like a cartoon character getting dramatically tossed around by this huge, powerful tail.

“Don’t let go! Don’t let go!” Drew was shouting.

All of a sudden, my gator cracked her tail like a whip, and I found myself being flung sideways into the water. The water was only two feet deep or so—that wasn’t a problem—but right in front of me was a very irritated predator who was extremely nimble underwater and who had extremely powerful jaws. Not to mention sharp, pointy teeth.

This isn’t good, I thought.

I scrambled to my feet as quickly as I could. It felt like I was down in the mud for about a minute, just daring my gator to reach around and chomp me, but when I watched the video later it was really more like 2 seconds before I popped back up. You have never seen a dance teacher move faster.

Amazingly, I still had the gator’s tail in my hands—I hadn’t let go. I don’t know how I did that.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t braced anymore, and the gator gave one last mighty wriggle and snatched her tail out of my hands before jetting full-speed toward the far corner. She had gotten away.

I screamed in frustration, mad at myself for letting go. Drew, though, was thrilled.

“Good going! Holy crap!” he exclaimed. “You’re a maniac!” He turned towards the group gathered on the bank. “She held on through that!”

I can’t tell you how good that praise made me feel. It made me feel like I could do anything.

Which was good, because I still had to catch my gator. “Are you OK to go again?” Drew asked me in a low voice that the rest of the group couldn’t hear. Like a good leader, he was making sure that the fall into gator-infested water hadn’t completely shaken me up.

Actually, it had just made me mad. “I’m good,” I said. “I’m just angry that it got away.”

“Well, let’s find her again,” he said. He then started searching the pool for my gator, which I guess was distinctive because the base of her tail bulged out in a funny way. I would have been happy to grab a different gator if it was handy, but Drew seemed to want to set up Me vs Alligator 2: The Revenge (“this time, it’s personal!”).

After a minute, he found her again in a corner of the pool, where I would need to walk up on the bank to get her. “There she is!” he said, pointing. “All right. Why don’t you go around—you’ve got her in the corner. Go around Lori.”

I thought Lori must be his girlfriend, who was standing on the bank. “Go around Lori?” I repeated.”

“Yeah. Lori’ll spin.”

That didn’t make much sense, but I was so focused on getting the gator that I didn’t even think about it. It wasn’t until much later (when I’d found out that Drew’s girlfriend was named Rosana) that I realized Lori was another of the alligators. I could see her next to the bank when I watched the video.

Good thing I didn’t try to grab her tail.

I walked back up the bank and around to the corner, where a bunch of tires were sticking up out of the mud. Drew pointed out my gator to me, and I bent down and grabbed her tail. She didn’t wiggle much this time, but she did hook her front legs over something to hang on, and for a second or two I couldn’t move her. I heaved, and she started to move reluctantly back with me. Then we got hung up on the tires, and I couldn’t go anywhere. Seriously, I think she might have weighed more than me.

Drew asked my classmates to come help me over the tires, and Svan and Chris ran over to pull on the tail with me (Ray was still on the other side of the fence).

“That’s a big gator!” Drew exclaimed.

We pulled her out onto the bank, and Svan and Chris held her tail while I jumped onto her back and put my feet up under her front legs (her “armpits,” as we kept calling them, except I’m not really sure that alligators have armpits). I am not sure I could have held onto her by myself; she was still trying to crawl forward, even with three of us holding her. Alligator wrangling would probably not be a stellar career choice for me. But, with their help, I was able to get my fingers in front of her neck and lift her head off the ground, immobilizing her.

As Drew took my picture, he said, “How do you feel right now?”

I beamed. “I feel amazing!” And I did. There is something very rewarding about struggling with something bigger and stronger than yourself and coming out on top (literally!).

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Now it was Ray’s turn. I didn’t think that Drew and the class would be able to talk him into it this time, but, after a few minutes of cajoling that ranged from Ginger’s, “I felt the exact same way,” to Svan’s, “I feel ya, dude. This is nuts,” he (to my surprise) climbed over the fence and waded into the pool.

He told me later that Drew’s girlfriend Rosana had been working on him the whole time the rest of us had been wrestling. She’d stood by the fence and gave him the crap that the guys hadn’t given him, saying things like, “Does it bother you that your wife is so much braver than you?”, “I guess we know who wears the pants in your family,” and (the kicker), “I’m five months pregnant, and I did it.”

Speaking of which, I think that makes her the bravest (and craziest) person there.

Anyway, Rosana’s “encouragement” worked, and Ray waded in and grabbed his alligator. Of course, the one he grabbed ended up having big bite wounds all over it, so instead of being able to get in and out quickly, he had to sit there and hold it still for several minutes while the rest of us dabbed it with paper towels and ointment. I’m pretty sure it was his version of purgatory.

“Know what this proves?” he said when he was done. “That peer pressure works!”

We took a water break, and then we headed out for our final challenge: the “lake,” the biggest of the ponds, where the 8-12 foot alligators lived.

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First, though, we went in to visit Elvis, one of the original alligators the farm bought in 1987. Now 25, he’s lived in the park his whole life, and he is huge. He’s got his own enclosure, which is good, because he’s aggressive. Most of us enjoyed watching him from a distance (except for Svan, who walked closer, because Svan was crazy. More on that later). Drew wanted us to see Elvis because he’s a perfect alligator specimen, unlike so many of the rescues, who have deformities after being kept in bad conditions for most of their lives.

The lake was next to Elvis’ enclosure. By that time, the ground was baking hot, and everybody but Drew was walking with these side-to-side hopping motions so that our feet were in contact with the ground for only about a second at a time. Drew seemed immune to the heat. I was coated in mud up to my waist because of my fall, which didn’t bother me until Svan leaned over at one point and said, “I just realized that the gators poop in this water.”

Hmm. Guess I should have brought some sanitizer.

On the bank of the lake, Drew reminded us about keeping our feet low in the water, and he reminded us of another rule of dealing with alligators: if you feel something brush by you, freeze and pretend to be a tree.

Then we set off through the waist-deep muddy water, heading for a little mound of dirt like an island that was decorated with a sign that said “Colorado Gator Complaints Department: Line Forms Here.” Right in the middle of the gator-infested lake.

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Walking through the lake, I was about as nervous as I’d been all day. This was their habitat, and the water was deep enough, and murky enough, that I couldn’t see whether any alligators were around me or not. But I scooted my feet through the dirt at the bottom and moved slowly, and I reached the island without disturbing anything more than a couple of old gator bones—which are disconcerting enough, let me tell you. I didn’t even see any gators anywhere near me. I wondered, after I reached dry land, if there weren’t really that many in the lake.

Drew and Alex went off to find our last gator. The gators in this pond were too big to drag out by their tails, so Drew was going to tow one in with a rope. Meanwhile, we stood around talking, feeling pretty darn good about ourselves. After a few minutes, I looked around, and I was startled to see more than a dozen pairs of eyes poking out of the water around the island, watching us with the disconcerting stillness that gators use to help them ambush prey.

Good Lord. ALL of those had been there while we’d been walking to the island? It was just as well that I hadn’t known that. Alligator eyes sticking up out of the water make them look really, really evil.

“It’s lucky that alligators don’t have a pack mentality, isn’t it?” Ginger said, echoing my thoughts.

Actually, alligators, like most wild animals, are shy of human beings. There has never been a fatal alligator attack in Louisiana, and even in Florida, where humans come into more contact with big gators than anywhere else, there have only been about a dozen fatal attacks in the last ten years. Crocodopolis.com says that you have a better chance of winning the Florida lottery than you do of being attacked by an alligator. They’re not evil; they’re just reptilian ambush predators, largely unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs and operating mainly from instinct. Like Greta Garbo, they just want to be left alone.

Unfortunately for one specimen, it wasn’t going to get its wish. Drew and Alex pulled a big gator ashore—it was more than 8 feet long—and we all took turns posing with it, even kissing its head and resting our chins against its nose a la Tahar the Alligator King. That’s safe(ish) once you’ve got the gator immobilized, since it can’t twist, and it also can’t either see or feel you doing it. Even Ray had his picture taken, and my very favorite picture of the day is him looking up at the camera from the back of the gator with this plaintive look that seems to say, “Can we go home now?” Of course, Ray ended up being the last person on the gator’s back, so he had to sit there and immobilize it while we checked it for injuries (which included, in this case, a loose tooth! Gators lose teeth frequently and then regrow them).

I felt pretty content with my adventure, and I had definitely gotten my money’s worth. Svan, however, wanted one last challenge, so he and Drew waded off under some willow trees so that Svan could catch his own big gator. The rest of us sat down and talked. I found out that Ginger worked with Drew at his kennel, that Alex was Drew’s roommate, and that Chris was originally from L.A.

It was maybe ten minutes later that we heard Svan’s characteristic shouting: “Come on, girl! Come on, Mildred! That’s right! Settle down now, girl, I’ve got you!”

“Does he do that on the ranch, too?” I asked Chris curiously. “Talk to the animals, I mean.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Chris. “All the time. When we’re catching calves, you’ll always hear him yelling, ‘Who’s your daddy?’”

Mildred must have gotten away, because Svan and Drew moved back closer to the island. Then Svan exclaimed, “I’ve got one!”

All of a sudden, his shout of triumph turned into a scream. “No! It’s got me! It’s got me!” His shoulders were under the water now, and there was a ton of splashing. “Jesus Christ! Oh, sweet Jesus! I’m a goner! I’m done for!”

Having heard Svan do this all day, we were all laughing. Drew, standing next to Svan, was not laughing, but he also didn’t seem panicked, so we figured everything was OK. Over by the fence, some park visitors were watching. There was a little boy, maybe eight years old, staring with round eyes and an open mouth, but his dad, a big guy in a Harley Davison t-shirt, was laughing his head off and filming the whole thing on his phone. Probably made his day.

Svan heaved, and the gator’s head popped up out of the water. “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!” Svan yelled. “I’ve got you now!” And then he leaned forward and kissed the gator on the nose. Better him than me.

When he and Drew got back to the island, I said, “You were really funny with all your shouting over there.”

Svan looked at me. “Funny? I was serious. I thought the gator had got me.”

“Oh, come on,” said Drew. “What was the worst that could have happened?”

Ray was not looking forward to walking back through the lake, but it turned out there was a way you could walk back to the gate on dry land. He was pretty peeved about that; he would definitely have taken the dry-land route on the way there if he had known about it.

Back in the gift shop, we were all given Certificates of Insanity with our picture on it:

“Awarded for willingly and knowingly abandoning all common sense and good judgment and endangering life and limbs while taking the world’s only Alligator Wrestling Class at Colorado Gators Reptile Park.”

As we walked back to the car, I asked Ray if he’d enjoyed himself.

“Yeah,” he said. “I did. And you know what? This Certificate of Insanity is going on my wall at work right next to my Facility Management Professional certificate. It’s one of the proudest achievements of my life!”

Find out more about Colorado Gators at http://www.coloradogators.com/