Atmosphere

Swamp Things

Why alligator wrestling isn't just for Floridians anymore.

June 2009

Thud. I hit the muddy ground, scraping my elbow across a rock. But it's not the bruise that's concerning; it's the seething seven-foot beast that just bucked me and is now thrashing its tail menacingly. Frozen by the gaze of an angry alligator with enough jaw strength to nip off one of my limbs on a whim, I can only think: Oh. Dear. Lord.

On this overcast morning, I'm at gator wrestling school at the Colorado Gators and Reptile Park in the San Luis Valley. The property, a tilapia hatchery, is a maze of reeking moats, ponds, and muddy enclosures fed by a geothermal well. The owners originally bought the gators—now numbering more than 300—to devour the fish carcasses. Eventually, they began charging admission and offering lessons.

My burly, barefooted instructor has steered me through several stages of alligator handling. The foot-longers in the wading pool were cute little critters. The three-footers in the creek, a trifle more intimidating. Being trapped in a pen with about 40 giant, irritable reptiles—downright terrifying. The key, he says, is to be still until you can approach from behind. Then simply hop on its back and pull its torso upright. Once you've got him under control, you set him down and back away.

My last opponent of the day is Kekoa, a gator that's so large—11 feet long and 600 pounds—and ornery that my instructor does the pre-wrangling and lulls the beast into a stupor. I immobilize Kekoa from behind by getting my hands in the crook of the jaw—there are a few tooth-less inches—and lean back with all the upper body strength I can muster. Kekoa lets out a demonic hiss, and my head starts to shake back and forth of its own accord. But there's no way I'm backing down now. My instructor smirks. "It only hurts 'til you're unconscious, darlin'."