Tuesday, October 16, 2007

MOSCA, Colo.

You have tamed your IPod, mastered your IPhone, conquered the art of downloading and text messaging and tied the Hong Kong stock market to your laptop in Chattanooga, Tenn.

But do you know how to wrestle an alligator, if one by any chance shows up at your doorstep? Believe it or not, this manly skill, unceremoniously eclipsed by the digital age, is still being taught in southern Colorado.

It snows here in the winter and temperatures routinely drop below the freezing point. Majestic peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise to the east of a semiarid valley of sage and parched grass that offers a more hospitable home to prairie dogs and rattlesnakes than to the bulky denizens of swamps around the Gulf of Mexico.

But here they are — more than 400 of them, loitering carelessly in a string of fenced ponds at more than 7,500 feet above sea level, just 17 miles north of the railway town of Alamosa. Eating, drinking and multiplying.

“All of these ponds are fed by a geothermal well that provides 87-degree water year-round,” explains Jay Young, co-owner of Colorado Gators Alligator Farm & Reptile Park and chief instructor at the wrestling school. “We are proud to say that they are more comfortable here than in Florida, regardless of the weather outside.”

Food is plentiful as well. The alligators live next to a fish farm, feasting on tilapia that did not make it to market.

They even have a Hollywood celebrity among them, a no-nonsense 50-year-old 12-footer named Morris, who starred in “Happy Gilmore” and “Dr. Doolittle 2” among other pictures before retiring to the fresh mountain air.

But why the school?

“Why do people jump with parachutes or leap off a cliff with just a bungee cord wrapped around their feet?” Mr. Young says. “It’s a way to prove yourself, to test your composure in extraordinary situations, to get a rush of adrenaline.”

The three-hour course costs $100 and is available to adults upon signing a release form.

The introductory phase consists of catching a sprightly 2½-foot caiman careening across a pool with the speed of a toy motor boat.

It probably lacks the heft to kill a human outright, but certainly has a wide enough mouth — and razor-sharp teeth — to snap off a finger, if given the chance.

“No matter the size, you always start from the tail,” patiently explains Mr. Young, wearing a battered “Crocodile Dundee”-style hat. “As you may have noticed, that’s where they don’t have teeth.”

From then on, it’s really a three-step strategy: a pull, a lunge and a lift.

First, you pull the writhing beast by the tail out of the water, then lunge forward grabbing it by the neck and pinning it to the ground, and, finally, holding its neck in a lock, lift the upper half of the body off the ground, depriving the short but powerful paws of traction — and the none-too-amused reptile of mobility.

The caiman threateningly hissed but did not offer much resistance.

The next step is wrestling 7-footers. Two of them recently got into a fight, emerging from it with wounds that needed sanitizing and stitching in order to prevent infection.

That’s why alligator wrestling is always part thrill, part necessity. Like any other animals living on a farm, alligators need medical treatment. They have to be vaccinated or moved from one pond to the next. And each of these tasks requires subduing the beast, often twice its handler’s size.

This requires standing knee deep in a muddy pond teeming with grown-up alligators — rollicking and thrashing just three feet away.

“Don’t worry — they don’t see very well in water,” assures Mr. Young, stepping over thick serrated tails in a bid to find his patients. “If you see one coming at you, don’t move. He’ll think you are a tree.”

The wrestler must overcome the natural instinct for self-preservation to throw himself on the alligator’s massive and heaving neck, too close to its threatening mouth. The muscles of the gator’s neck become tense, but it remains on the ground.

Even when all is done, and the fearsome snout is shut tight with duct tape, the fight is not really over. The nearly half-ton reptile writhes and wriggles, thrusting forward, toward the perceived shelter of muddy waters every time a surgical needle goes into its skin and the sutures pull on the bare flesh.

“You’d better behave if you want to live,” Mr. Young admonishes the gator only half-jokingly. “A wound like that can kill you.”

About 150 students, a third of them women, have graduated from the alligator wrestling school in the seven years of its existence, according to park administrators.

“Most people are physically capable of capturing or wrestling an alligator,” says Mr. Young. “And we’ve had them from everywhere — students, office workers. Cadets from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs come often to test their mettle.”

There have been no serious injuries to students. Light cuts and bruises occur on average once or twice a year, Mr. Young says.

The school, information about which can be found at www.coloradogators.com, offers no formal degree. But upon completion of the course, each student receives a “certificate of insanity” — complete with a photo of the wrestler astride the vanquished beast.

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