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.
The gator squirmed, if that’s the right word for 400 pounds of muscle and armor plating whipping from side to side, “Step up! Walk up!” Jimmy urged me forward. “Now, sit down on him, all the way!” Though every cell in my brain that hadn’t already gone catatonic urged me to do the opposite — jump off and run for the fence — I did.
Godzilla calmed for a moment, though it still felt like I was sitting on a giant firecracker waiting to go off. “I’m gonna lift his head up to you,” Jimmy told me in a voice that seemed insanely calm. “Grab the tape on both sides. Now hold his head up. Don’t pull it back too far! You got it.”
And there we were: Man triumphs over giant killer reptile! Well, three men and six inches of tape, for three seconds, anyway. “You gotta have a lot of upper-body strength to do this kind of job,” Jimmy confided to me, one alligator wrestler to another. “And a low IQ.”
Secrets of gator wrestling
Now that I’m part of the Brotherhood of Alligator Wrestlers, my editors would like me to dish on some of our secrets. I was a little worried about committing a security breach, but Jimmy and Paul said not to worry, if I give away too much they’ll just kill anybody who reads it.
Q. What about alligator poop?
“It’s not bad,” says Jimmy, who had to clean up a lot of it at the Seminole Native Village in Hollywood before his bosses let him wrestle his first gator. (At age 11!) “It’s real white and it’s real chalky. Alligators, their digestive system is so good, they digest everything into a white powder. There’s no fur or feathers or anything left.”
Q. What kind of lunatic would wrestle gators for a living?
The kind that gets too seasick to wrestle sharks. “I used to catch lemon sharks with my bare hands and tag them for a researcher,” says Paul. “To be honest, that was more of a cowboy thing. I was trying to be as crazy as possible. But I threw up too much. A cameraman friend of mine said, ‘You might be better off in the swamps. No one gets seasick there.’ And that’s when I found out about gators.”
Q. Gators are really fast, aren’t they?
“For some reason, everybody and their mother thinks gators can run 30 miles an hour,” says Paul. “I have no idea why. A gator’s top speed is 10 or 11 miles an hour. And that’s for maybe 10 yards. Then he needs a nap and a bowl of Wheaties.”
Q. But if a gator does start chasing you, the best way to flee is by running in zig-zags, right?
Yes, if your life’s ambition is to be a gator’s breakfast. “Trust me, you do not have to run zig-zag,” says Jimmy, who accumulated seven gator bites while researching it. “We’ve found that by running a straight line, you get a lot farther away, a lot quicker.”
Q. Isn’t the danger of gators exaggerated? They don’t really see humans as food, do they?
“That’s true as far as it goes,” agrees Paul. “They’re not going to climb out of the water, sneak into your house and eat you while you’re sleeping. But if you’re in the water, all he sees is your head. You’re just a duck with a funny haircut.”
Q. When gators mate, is it romantic?
More like closing time at a South Beach club. “A male alligator won’t breed with just any other alligator he sees,” says Jimmy. “We’ve put alligators into enclosures with other gators [during mating season] and the male alligators have almost killed the females.... Then we put him in with another female, and he mates with her immediately. They’re kind of picky.”
Q. Are gators very religious?
No, but gator wrestlers tend to be. “People think I’m a Jesus freak, but if you’re going to put your head in a gator’s mouth, it’s good to have a backup plan,” says Paul. “I’ve been bitten in the head five times, and I’m still here. Either God listens to my prayers, or I just taste like crap.”
Q. You really can’t see the tape in that picture of you wrestling the gator.
Tape? What tape? Real men don’t need no stinking tape.