Miami Stories

Alligator wrestler describes his job: ‘It’s more like a conversation than a fight’

Rocky Jim Jr. holds an alligator at the Miccosukee Indian Village in Miami.
Rocky Jim Jr. holds an alligator at the Miccosukee Indian Village in Miami. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

My name is Rocky Jim Jr. and I was born in Miami on July 23, 1971. I grew up on the Miccosukee reservation in Miami for about 95 percent of my life.

Around five years ago, I left because I needed a little change. Up until then, I was an alligator wrestler at the reservation.

The first time I worked with an alligator I was about 13. I was fishing with my late dad and I saw him moving gators around with his bare hands. I was kind of surprised when he asked me whether I wanted to do it. I hesitated and said no. But the next time he did it I just told myself “OK, I’m gonna do it.”

So I jumped in the canal and moved that gator. I just pushed him away and jumped out of the water real quick.

At first it was not something I was ready for, but [my dad] calmed me down by telling me that they wouldn’t do anything to me.

So I just kept doing it with smaller ones until I got used to it. My dad’s advice was simply “Don’t get bit.”

He taught me a few other things, like how to stay away from the alligator’s head.

He told me to just go under the water, look at the gator and grab it from the tail softly and slowly. Then, just pull it and go under its neck, hold it and push it away. That’s it.

The reason my dad told me to go underwater was to look at the way the gator’s positioned. Part of what I do is looking at its body language.

I never really asked how my dad learned how to do this. I’m assuming he learned from his dad.

I know my dad did it for a long time, and he did it mostly when he was fishing.

I looked up to other wrestlers like my late grandpa and my uncles. My grandpa’s name was Bobby Tiger. He worked at the reservation for a long while. Every time I got a chance, I’d go over there and see the way he wrestled alligators.

There were alligator wrestlers on both sides of my family.

Before I got into it myself, I played other sports, like basketball, football and baseball.

One of the most challenging things about wrestling is that you’ve got to have a lot of patience with the gators. They’ve got a mind of their own and pretty smart brains. So they’re stubborn.

We also have to try to work with them instead of hurting them. It’s called “wrestling” but we try not to be aggressive with them. It’s more like a conversation than a fight.

You’ve got to position yourself in a good angle with enough separation, or they’ll hiss and try to bite you. The reason I retired from wrestling was because I was bit one too many times.

They can’t see in front of them or behind them. But when I first approach one from the front and try to go to the back, the gator would be able to see me and follow me around. So I had to learn to move slowly. If I moved real quick, they’d react real quick. I used to move around slowly so don’t they wouldn’t be threatened by my movements.

I grabbed gators from the front, usually under their jaw so I can lift their head up. When their head’s up, they’re kind of almost paralyzed.

Most gators, if I grabbed them by the under the jaw, they’d shake around and let loose. But that’s where the patience comes in. So if it didn’t shake, I’d move them up and close their eyes. When I close their eyes, it kind of relaxes them. And when they can’t see me, they aren’t gonna move. Then I closed my legs around their back so they wouldn’t try to move.

Obviously the mouth is the most dangerous part, but their tails are strong too. It’s kind of like a muscle.

If it hit me real good on the leg, it could break my leg or shatter my bones.

Plus, the tip of the tail is like getting slapped with a leather belt. Their scales can also leave a mark on my sides. They’re kind of sharp, but some of them are kind of rounded.

Common injuries are hits from the tail, bites and fingers getting jammed on the gator’s head. There’s also their claws, which they normally use for digging. Those can hurt, as well.

I started doing shows at the reservation because we were short of workers. A friend of mine was doing it but he had to leave. So he asked me if I wanted to do it and I said nope. I was working in maintenance at the time. Nobody knew I could even alligator wrestle.

But he said, “Come on, help us out!”

I did it. Everyone was kind of surprised that I could do it, and it kinda stuck with me ever since.

Most of the shows go the same. I’ve gotten used to how to do it, especially working with the same gators. We tried different things with different gators, but that’s about as different as we got.

We did travel with the gators. We got to do shows at different parks like the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead and in schools around the city.

It’s one of the ways I would see the city when I was on the reservation. I also liked seeing the people who live in the city and would come and see us.

I don’t really feel like the reservation is separate from the city of Miami. Since we’re on Tamiami Trail, I think a lot of people have access to us and come and visit. But I see why they would feel like tourists when they go to the reservation. I also sometimes feel like a tourist going into a McDonald’s or Burger King. Especially when I’m in the Miami traffic trying to get there.

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