FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.
Wanted: Thrill-seeking animal lovers with cool heads and quick reflexes. Must have finesse, agility and high tolerance for pain. Apply at wildlife parks in Florida, where the alligator wrestler is quickly disappearing.
Alligator handlers across South Florida said there is simply less money, glamour and interest in the profession today than in its glory days, when crowds flocked to roadside shows. Although no exact figures are available, no one disputes that alligator wrestlers are an endangered species.
“I believe gator wrestlers are definitely a dying breed,” said James Peacock, wildlife manager at Native Village in Hollywood. “We’re fading out. Just like the cowboys and Indians of yesteryear or the Japanese samurai.”
These days, tourists would rather ride on Everglades air boats and view wildlife in its natural habitat, said Nicki E. Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“You have to get real. You have to give someone an actual experience, a relationship with the destination,” Miss Grossman said. “And I think we’ve come a long way from the days when alligator wrestling was the big draw.”
On a good day, Mr. Peacock said, he teaches a few tourists about Florida wildlife. Years ago, he said, those shows would draw more than 400 visitors. When he started in the business, he could make about $500 a day in tips. Those days, he says, are over.
Mr. Peacock said that because of animal TV shows and Internet videos, fewer tourists are interested in seeing his presentations.
“The lessons are being taught in their own home, without harming any animals. So that’s the positive side,” Mr. Peacock said. “The negative side is, did I waste the last 17 years of my life learning how to do this?”
The profession isn’t one that former alligator wrestler Jesse Kennon would encourage many people to pursue these days, especially those who need a steady income.
“You have to realize, an outdoorsman that lives in the ‘Glades or deals with animals is a special type of person,” Mr. Kennon said. “He’s not the one that can work in an office. An office is just not for him.”
Jeremy Possman, 25, learned how to handle alligators from a member of the Miccosukee Indian tribe. He said some Miccosukee parents used to hope their children would learn how to handle the animals because a good show could secure wealth for the family.
“A long time ago, especially when the tourism of Florida was skyrocketing, most alligator handlers, they could pull a good amount of money in a week just off of tips,” Mr. Possman said. “Nowadays, its not as good.”
Former Seminole Indian tribal chairman and alligator wrestler James Billie still keeps the finger that an alligator snatched in a jar at his house. Injuries are normal in the industry, and wrestlers say they generally aren’t deterred by a little blood.
“If you do get bit, a lot of times that just means more business,” Mr. Possman said, “because they’re going to come back to see if it’s going to happen again.”
Mr. Possman said his show is not designed to show his strength. He sits atop the alligator and grabs a loose portion of its skin under its mouth to display its sharp teeth. He holds the alligator’s mouth shut with his chin and shows how trappers would tie gator. To end the show, he allows the alligator to open its mouth, extends his arms and rests his chin on the alligator’s nose.
Daytona Beach resident Bobby Smith, who watched Mr. Possman’s show at Everglades Alligator Farm with his family, said though he lives in Florida, he hadn’t seen the tourist staple until this summer.
“I think they’re just getting crowded out,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Possman said today’s tourists are turned off by man versus beast demonstrations that used to be popular.
“Now, a lot of things have changed to conservation,” he said.
None of this fazes 13-year-old Scott Cohen.
Scott, the head volunteer at Native Village, has been training as a wrestler by using smaller gators with taped mouths. His parents were squeamish at first, but Scott said they have accepted his interest. He said he hopes to someday open an animal park and sees a good future in the business.
“As long as I have all 10 fingers, I’m good,” he said. “As long as I have all my body parts, I’m fine.”