I should have known when other reporters — usually the first ones to cheer when somebody comes up with a new way of sneaking out of the newsroom and away from the pernicious stares of editors — told me I had lost my mind. But somehow the mad and possibly suicidal folly of a first-person story about alligator riding did not really strike me until I peered over the wall of the gator pen at Everglades Park, where my new pal Godzilla lay sullenly in the sun, unprintable daydreams about ducks, turtles and possibly reporters unspooling in his tiny reptilian brain.
That brain was the only tiny thing about him. Ten feet long and 400 pounds, Godzilla is a menace just casually flipping his tail. When he’s hungry (which is roughly always) or annoyed (which is less predictable, but seems a safe bet to occur when a human being sits on his back) you don’t really want to be on the same continent with him.
“Is this dangerous?” I asked Jimmy Riffle, one of the stars of TV’s Gator Boys. (As the words came out of my mouth, I realized I had just refuted one of the great truisms of American journalism, that there is no such thing as a stupid question.)
“Nah,” he scoffed — which sounded reassuring until his next sentence, when I realized he had understood the question backward — “it doesn’t hurt them in any way. It just stresses them out a little bit.”
Jimmy and the rest of the cast of Gator Boys, which airs at 10 p.m. on Sundays on Animal Planet, had invited me out to their West Broward set to learn some of the tricks they employ chasing and wrestling with rogue gators who’ve invaded golf fairways and swimming pools.
It was not exactly comforting that another star, Paul Bedard, was absent, recovering from a gator bite. “The bite was not really a big deal, I’ve been bitten 30 times,” Paul told me by telephone. “The real problem is the infection, which is pretty serious.” The conversation felt a bit like Butch Cassidy telling the Sundance Kid, as they prepared to jump off a 100-foot cliff into a river, not to worry that he couldn’t swim: “The fall will probably kill you.”
I don’t know if a psychiatrist has ever tried treating a troubled patient by locking him in a gator pen, but it might be worth a shot. Proximity to a gator clears the mind of petty neuroses, existential dilemmas and indeed all worldly concerns except one: What if that thing bites me?
“Don’t worry, we’re going to tape his mouth shut,” Jimmy said as we entered the pen, but a few inches of cloth tape separating me from the 2,000-pounds-per-square-inch biting force in Godzilla’s jaws seemed like a pretty puny barrier. Once again, Jimmy got my worries backward. “You’re gonna hide the tape, so you can’t see it,” he said, gesturing where my hands would go on the gator’s snout, “and you’re gonna tell a lot of lies.”
As Jimmy held the gator’s jaws and his brother Andy took hold of the tail, I lifted my foot to stand astride him. “Don’t step on his toes,” Jimmy warned. “Because that makes him mad.” Added Andy helpfully: “Really agitated.” I wondered if it might also be agitating Godzilla that Jimmy kept inadvertently calling him by the wrong name, Goliath, but decided social gaffes weren’t my biggest problem at the moment.