Gators! Pt. 4: Alligator Wrestling
RoadsideAmerica.com Guide to Florida Alligator Attractions
The Seminole and Miccosukee Indians have been wrestling gators in Florida since before there were tourist attractions or federally-funded roads. You can still watch them at it if you feel like driving miles into the Everglades to a place such as the Miccosukee Indian Village. Alternately, you can also see a good wrestling show only yards from a fast food drive-thru and satellite TV.
"Wrestling" is a poor choice of words; the humans and gators don't roll around on the ground, grappling -- unless, of course, the human has been "banged" (bitten) and the gator is trying to sever a limb. Gator wrestling is instead a series of careful stunts, such as coaxing a gator to open its mouth ("The Florida Smile"), tucking the gator's head against your neck ("Bulldogging") and holding a gator's mouth open with only your chin while your arms are outstretched ("The Face-Off"). It takes strength, but also finesse, which is why women now wrestle alongside of men. "You need long, strong legs to straddle and hold down an eight-foot gator," explained Mike Hileman, the entertainment director at Gatorland. "Otherwise it'd just carry you around like a horse."
When we arrived at Gatorland, Mike was drilling a pair of rookie wrestlers in the art of bullwhip cracking. "Just pretend you're throwing a baseball!" he cried, exasperated. Mike told us that it's difficult to find wrestlers with the right combination of skills. "We've had people who can handle alligators like nobody's business -- really do some pretty crazy stuff -- but they can't say their name into a microphone while they're doing it. A good wrestler is tough to find."
"You have to have your heart in it," says Jimmy Riffle, who has been wrestling gators at Native Village since he was twelve. "You have to be very patient. It also helps to have a low IQ."
Gatorland, again at the bleeding edge of gator entertainment, has begun inviting kids into the wrestling pit (at $10 apiece) and dropping them on the back of a live gator whose snout has been taped shut. For another ten bucks they'll take a picture, and print it on a T-shirt for a few dollars more.
The taped snout is no mere lawsuit hedge. Even small gators have tremendous crushing strength in their jaws, and all gator wrestlers get banged. Scars are a part of their resume. Jeremy Possman, at Everglades Gator Farm, described it as "like having your hand slammed in a car door with 82 nails." Jimmy Riffle remembered an occasion when he was banged on the hand by a gator who then hung on for eight minutes. "He wouldn't let go. We had to pry him off with a crowbar."
Native Village, where Jimmy Riffle works, stands out for its wrestling. Gatorland is good for people with young kids -- and they do have Gator Jumparoo -- but its wrestling show is a little too sanitized for our tastes. Native Village has that 16th century feel -- Old Florida -- with palm leaf crap all over the ground, and everything kind of half-fallen and shadowy. The help goes around barefoot, while you worry about something parasitic burrowing through your shoes.
Jimmy Riffle and his wrestling crew are agreeable hosts, and will drag a gator out of the pit to suit an audience. "We use the friendly alligators for the kids. The killer alligators we save for the adults," Jimmy explains. There is no stadium seating here, so visitors are mere inches from the action.
Jimmy's mom was the one who encouraged him to wrestle, and he carries that generational enthusiasm into his work. "I love it," Jimmy says. "You don't wake up one morning and say, 'I wanna wrestle an alligator.' You take it one step at a time, and hope that today isn't the day that you get your arm ripped off."
Update: In 2011, Jimmy Riffle parlayed his gator wrestling expertise into a co-hosting gig on the Animal Planet series "Gator Boys."