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Paging Captain Hook

Florida's Seminole tribe advertises for gator wrestlers

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2000



HOLLYWOOD, FLA.

You know Florida's economy must be in especially good shape when the Seminole tribe has to place a newspaper ad to locate a few alligator wrestlers.

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That's exactly what happened this month when the Seminole Okalee Indian Village and Museum, a tourist attraction on the Seminole reservation northwest of Miami, was unable to find a single native American with the requisite interest and skill to fill an open position.

So they decided to go outside the tribe to find a gator grappler.

The classified ad read in part: "WANTED: alligator wrestler. Must be brave and a risk taker." Pay: $8 an hour.

"It is a tribal tradition that goes back 200 years. It has been passed down from generation to generation," says Chuck Malkus, a spokesman for the tribe. "But the reality is that today tribal members are pursuing careers in banking, e-commerce, communications, law, and we haven't had any tribal members apply or show an interest."

Some lament the development as the end of an era, when members of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes were more than willing to demonstrate actual swamp-honed know-how and bare-chested bravery at any number of roadside attractions in Florida. Others see it as a sign of progress as members further integrate into Florida society, opting for more lucrative careers. If you don't have to, why risk limb (if not life) while manhandling seven-foot-long, 150-pound reptiles two to four times a day for the amusement of the sunburned throngs?

"We do have some people who still do this, but just a handful of them are left," says Alexandra Frank, manager of the Okalee attraction and a member of the Seminole Tribe.

Ms. Frank explains that it isn't actually wrestling. What the shows attempt to demonstrate is a skill developed by a people who lived deep in the Everglades and needed fresh alligator meat and hides to survive. A gator hunter could rarely kill the creature with a single spear thrust or rifle shot. Most often the wounded alligator would retreat to the bottom of a "gator hole" in the middle of the swamp. To complete the hunt it was usually necessary to dive beneath the muddy water and drag the reptile onto shore or into a boat. Sometimes the effort involved something akin to wrestling, and the stakes were always extremely high for both man and beast.

As early as 1910, this fearless hunting technique captured the imagination of folks in Miami. And by the 1920s such alligator shows - though first started by white entrepreneurs - began to catch on.

Dozens of shows featuring Indians and alligators were offered throughout central and south Florida during the 1940s and 1950s. But today, estimates are that there may be as few as 25 native American gator wrestlers left, and that number is shrinking.

It is not a job people take for the money. The Okalee Village job pays $8 an hour to start. If you survive long enough you may earn up to $12 an hour. Not a lot of money considering gators possess 82 razor-sharp teeth and jaws capable of delivering a crushing 2,000 pounds per square inch.

Tim Williams works at Gatorland in Orlando, and despite 30 years of mixing it up with alligators he still possesses all 10 fingers. But he says gator teeth are an occupational hazard. "Race car drivers are going to have wrecks, carpenters are going to smack their fingers, and alligator wrestlers are going to get bit," Mr. Williams says.

Most alligator shows are more wildlife seminar than death-defying stunt. But they have their moments. Generally, the "wrestler" enters a pool of gators, grabs one by the tail, pulls him onto shore and then dives down on his back before the gator can spin around and bite him. Then the handler demonstrates how a gator has extreme crushing power while biting down, but little ability to open its mouth. Most handlers demonstrate this by pinching the jaws between their chin and chest while raising their arms in a kind of butterfly pose. This is when tourists snap a photograph.

It doesn't always go according to plan. In February, Seminole Chief James Billie lost a finger to a gator during an impromptu wrestling session in front of 50 tourists on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. Nearly three years ago, wrestler Kenny Cypress's head got trapped inside a gator's mouth during a show. It took two men and a crow bar to free Mr. Cypress, who survived the incident.

Who would want to do this for a living?

Four candidates have emerged among those responding to the newspaper ad. One is a real estate agent, another is a young woman attending college. The third is a former male model and cologne spokesman. The last candidate is a charter boat captain and shark fisherman. If selected, the "lucky ones" will undergo four weeks of training before displaying their skills (or lack thereof) in a pond full of actual alligators in front of a crowd of actual tourists.

Williams says the best advice he's ever received about working with gators came from an old-timer who still had all his limbs. "Just remember, all they got is time," he says. "They don't have to go shopping, they don't have to go to work, or pick up the kids, all they have to do is sit around and wait for you to make a mistake," he says. "They are opportunity eaters. They wait for something to grab."

At Gatorland, there are often 20 alligators in the show area, Williams says, and sometimes visitors ask whether anyone has ever fallen in. "None that we know of," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society