COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — With sweaty palms clutched tight on my steering wheel, I imagined the worst possible outcomes of what I was about to do. My mind drifted to the preserved fingers I'd seen sitting in jars during my first visit to the Colorado Gators Reptile Park — fingers that had been lost to the same congregation of alligators that I was about to face.
I had signed up for what's billed as the "world's only gator wrestling class," and it just so happens to be a short drive from Colorado Springs in the middle of the San Luis Valley. The description online is brief, informing those interested that they'll be wrestling 2-foot-long to 8-foot-long alligators, earning a "Certificate of Insanity" if they pass. Besides that, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
Shortly after my arrival, the class assembled. There were three students and one professional wrangler, Scott Valenti. Just minutes after signing our lives away in the form of a waiver, we were hopping into a pool filled with alligators two to four feet long.
While that may sound small, it's important not to underestimate the strength and aggression of any gator. With a mouth full of sharp teeth, a powerful tail, flexible body armor, and the ability to dismember in a single roll, it was immediately obvious why the American alligator is said to be untouched by adaptation for more than 8 million years. They are time-tested killing machines, often called modern-day dinosaurs with the Crocodylia group popping up around 84 million years ago and ancestors that date back to the Triassic period, which occurred at 200 million BCE.
With this knowledge of how dangerous a gator could be, I nervously clamored into the above-ground pool that held more than I could quickly count. The gators hissed at me, opening their mouths to show that they were fully armed. I froze.
"You can't hesitate. That's when they'll get ya." Our instructor reminded me of the cardinal rule for gator wrestling. Gators will take any chance to snap at you that they can get, so if you're slow or hesitant, that can be a big problem.
One of the key strategies of gator wrestling is taking advantage of their weaknesses. For one, a gator's eyes gaze directly out to the sides. This means that they can't see what's coming at them from behind, so that became my plan of attack.
After a bit of indecisiveness, I found a gator that wasn't looking my way. Keep in mind, this was just a small animal, so one is able to simply pluck them out of the water with carefully placed hands. I snagged my target on the first try, proudly holding it in the air while being mindful of its mouth. I inspected the gator for wounds that might need tending to and released it into the water with a gentle push.
It was now time for the next round of practice with larger gators, and that's when things started to escalate quickly.
With mid-sized alligators ranging from six to eight feet in length, the process is a bit different. Again, you start by entering a pool and positioning yourself behind your target, but instead of a simple grab, you pull the gator to dry land by tail first. From here, you give the tail a quick yank, launching yourself onto the gator's head before it has a chance to attack. If you're quick with your pull and your dive, things tend to go well. If you're too slow or the gator is more aggressive than the norm, things can go wrong fast.
The first student from our class bravely headed into the water. He reached down to grab a tail and started to pull when the unexpected happened.
Seeming more like a snake, the gator whipped its mouth up toward the man, latching tightly onto his hand. With a quick pull, the man ripped the gator off of him, tossing the animal back into the water. His hand started to bleed profusely, while the gator scurried to a log to watch us — mouth still covered in the man's blood. Without missing a beat, the man dove back into the water after another gator, this time making a clean catch.
Eventually, it was my turn.
Wading into the water, I looked for my target. Our instructor pointed out an ideal gator, and I placed two hands firmly on the tip of its tail ... no reaction. Then I started to pull.
The gator immediately opened its mouth and started hissing, trying to turn to face me. I quickly pulled it to shore in attempt to foil its aggressive plan of defense.
Once on shore, I took a deep breath and yanked, putting my hands to the back of the gator's skull as quickly as possible while pinning it to the ground with my thighs. Its tail whipped wildly, but I held on. Eventually, it calmed down enough, and the rest of the class moved in to inspect its wounds. It had several large cuts that required treatment with antibiotic ointment. It didn't like that.
Once that gator had been doctored up, I pointed its head to the water and hopped off. It scampered in with another hiss.
After our class caught several gators ranging from 4 to 8 feet in size, our guide wanted to show us how the bigger ones were caught.
Gators that large (9-10 feet) have to be caught differently — they're lassoed. And at the Colorado gator farm, they're in a larger pool, roughly the size of a basketball court and several feet deep. When people enter the pool, these gators hide beneath the surface, so that's where you have to catch them.
Following the instructor's lead, our group entered the pool with the goal of walking until we brushed a gator with our feet. To our advantage, alligators can't see too great in murky water. Once a gator was found, someone had to jump down on the animal, hang on for a ride across the water until the gator got tired, and then slide a lasso around the gator's neck so that it could be led to shore.
After a few minutes of wading, we found a gator, and our instructor made the dive. Once lassoed, the gator was pulled to shore after a few instances of spinning ripped the rope from the handler — the same student who had previously been maimed.
On shore, each person in the group had a role. One person sat on the gator, the instructor calmed it by shielding its eyes, and the other two inspected it for wounds, scraping off infection and filling them with life-saving antibiotic cream.
At the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, the instructors affectionately refer to this process as "doctoring" and is why they allow tourists to help them capture (or wrestle) the alligators on their farm. This gator had the worst wounds we'd seen of the day, one of which revealed raw muscle on its leg that would typically be hidden by scales.
We doctored the gator, and it was released back into the water, grumpy but no longer at risk of life-ending infection.
Yes, alligator wrestling is an adrenaline rush, but that's not the real reason why alligator wrestling exists — at least not at the Colorado Gators Reptile Park. A species with an inclination for violence, alligators are constantly fighting among those in their congregation, often to the death. If a gator doesn't succumb to the initial wound, infection quickly becomes a serious and deadly issue. That's where the gator wrestling comes in.
After an alligator is caught by a wrangler, the process doesn't end. The next steps include cleaning out wounds that the gator has sustained, rubbing antibiotic ointment on cuts and scrapes. This can greatly extend the life of the alligator from a maximum of around 50 years in the wild to as long as 85 years in captivity. This also helps to lower the mortality rate of smaller alligators more likely to fall victim to fatal wounds.
But why are they hand-caught? It's not just for show. The main alternative method of capturing a gator involves the use of a wire loop on the end of a pole. While this is safer for the wranglers, it's more dangerous for the gators. Because gators use a powerful roll when attacking, they tend to implement this strategy on the loop apparatus. This can cause major injuries.
Colorado's San Luis Valley is home to many geothermal hot spring pools, something that initially made Mosca, Colo., ideal for a tilapia farm. In 1977, a man named Erwin Young started an 80-acre farm raising fish. This created a problem of excess fish waste — dead fish and remains of filleted fish. The solution? Alligators.
Young purchased 100 small alligators that thrived in the warm 87-degree year-round water temperature at the farm. As word started to get out about so many gators living in the middle of Colorado, a demand for tours of the facility rose. The park opened to the public in 1990 and has been teaching visitors about a variety of reptiles and exotic animals ever since.
Today, many of the alligators and other exotic animals at the park are rescues, most of which were one-time pets that outgrew their owners. The park also has a few unique residents, including albino alligators and Morris the Movie Star, a 55-year-old gator seen in "Happy Gilmore," "Dr. Dolittle 2" and "Interview with a Vampire."
Gator wrestling is a relatively systematic process, and generally, if one follows the guidelines, they'll walk away from the experience without injury. That being said, gator wrestling involves an unpredictable wild animal. This makes safety everything but certain. This experience can result in serious injury and death.
If you're thinking about trying this, keep in mind that you'll need to be athletic enough to hold down a powerful animal, quick enough to foil its attacks, and confident that you won't hesitate. It's not something for everyone.
That being said, I personally loved this experience. It forced me to push past the inherent fear of getting up close and personal with such a dangerous creature, and I learned a ton about one of the most notorious predators on the planet. While I probably won't be on the back of an alligator again anytime soon, I can say with full certainty that this was a day I won't soon forget.
If you're interested in taking the class yourself, you can find out more about it on the official website. It costs $100 and must be scheduled a week in advance.
The gator farm also hosts an annual festival celebrating this animal in August, and it involves a ton of wrestling. This year, they're adding blindfolded wrestling to the mix. Yep ... you read that right.