So a few weeks ago when I visited Colorado Gators in Mosca, Colorado and heard they offered an alligator wrangling course, I signed up. Alligator wrangling isn’t the sort of thing you do by yourself, so I also signed up one of my more reckless adventure partners, Drew, calling it his 29th birthday present.
Alligator wrangling is as wild and foolish as you might imagine. The fact that there is a place in this obnoxiously litigeous country where you can sign a single sheet of paper, wade out into a stew of gators, grab one by the tail, haul it thrashing onto the beach and then leap on its back makes me proud. I thought you had to go to South America for this kind of no holds barred fun!
First, we started small. Our instructor, professional gator wrangler Joe, kicked things off by shedding his Croc sandals and wading barefoot into a tank of young gators and snapping turtles.
Drew and I kept our boots on and took turns grabbing the gators by the back of their necks, holding them against the bottom of the tank (you can’t drown a gator, at least not easily) until they stopped thrashing enough to get a good hold on the neck and the base of the tail, then we lifted them out of the water for inspection.
Every day, all day long at Colorado Gators, Joe and his gator wrangling colleagues catch gators and inspect them for injuries. The number one cause of alligator death here (they are not killed for their hides or meat) is from fights with other gators. Alligators are not nice creatures, not even to each other. They clash constantly for space, food and dominance and the results can be ugly.
Each gator we caught, 14 in total, was checked for injuries and treated with Neosporin. We must have gone through half a dozen tubes of the stuff. Lots of gators means lots of fights: Colorado Gators is home to about 360 gators, about half of which were confiscated pets. Alligators do not make good pets! As head wrangler Jay says, “You can’t make friends with an alligator. The more an alligator gets to know you, the more it wants to bite you.”
After we caught and handled three each of the smaller gators, Joe took us on a little detour to see and handle a 100-pound alligator snapping turtle, rescued from somebody’s flooded basement, and a Nile crocodile, one of the foulest tempered creatures I’ve ever met, also a former pet. People are nuts.
Then we got to the medium-sized gator pool, with about two dozen alligators between 4 and 7 feet long. Still barefoot, Joe waded out into the pool, which had a muddy bottom (concrete does horrible things to alligator skin, one of the problems with gators kept as backyard pets) and about 2 feet of dark green water, perfect for preventing gator sunburn but also great camouflage for the dark green gators.
Joe grabbed the biggest gator in the pool by the tail and dragged it backwards through the water onto the beach. The gator lit up at Joe’s contact, thrashing back and forth with such force, it was a wonder that he held on without dislocating a shoulder. Each time the gator threw her body to the side, Joe responded by jumping the opposite way, always staying at the end of her tail. “Stay away from the mouth,” was his instruction. No kidding.
Once on the beach, Joe gave the gator’s tail a few tugs, then heaving it backwards, flung the tail down and leaped onto the gator’s neck, landing with his knees on the ground on either side of the gator’s back. With his hands on the back of the gator’s neck, the beast couldn’t turn its head sideways to bite, but it countered by thrashing from side to side, whipping its tail and clawing at Joe’s bare feet. Undaunted, Joe clamped his whole body down hard, and then lifted the gator’s torso and front feet off the ground. “Ok,” he said to us, as we stood open-mouthed at the edge of the pool, “this is what you’re going to do.” Right…
Gator wrangling is not a thinking man’s sport. It reminded me of cliff jumping: If you think about it too much, you can’t do it. So before I could think too much, I waded out, picked one of the smaller gators and grabbed it by the tail. If the rest wasn’t on video, I wouldn’t quite be able to believe that I dragged the beast out of the water, jumped on its back and rode it thrashing around in the sand until I could lever its feet off the ground, effectively immobilizing it for Joe’s injury inspection.
My gator needed most of a tube of Neosporin, but Drew’s needed none: by sheer bad luck, he grabbed the alpha female out of the pool. She fought like a dragon, nearly ripping apart Drew’s rugby-injured right shoulder, due for surgery next week.
By the time Drew and I had each wrestled three medium-sized gators, my hands and arms were aching and I had a good-sized cut across my palm. I Neosporined myself up, straight from the alligator tube, then we moved on to what Joe called “the big one”, a 9-foot female in a different pen. Much to our relief, Joe told us he’d catch her and then we’d help doctor her wounds; she had recently gotten loose from her pen and crossed paths with the largest alpha female, a ruthless bitch named Laurie.
As we were standing at the edge of the ominously unnamed 9-footer’s pool, Joe said, “now watch, when I pull out this rope, she’s going to try to hide”. Sure enough, as soon as she caught a glimpse of that long green rope, the gator slipped into the shadows under a deck. Gators are smarter than you think!
Joe walked out onto the deck and before I could lift my camera, right as Drew said “No way!”, he hurdled the railing and fell ten feet down off the deck, into the water, onto the alligator’s back. The water erupted. All we could see through the spray were teeth, tail, and Joe’s black leather hat, holding on. After riding the furious alligator around the pool for a couple of laps, she finally let up enough for Joe to get his rope around her neck. Then he waded to the shore and called us over to help him pull her onto the beach.
“How’s that for entertainment?!” Joe asked, hauling on the rope and grinning like a maniac. I told him it was probably the single craziest thing I had ever witnessed anybody do in person. “I’ve always wanted to try that,” he said. “Figured since she was lined up just right, I’d go for it.” Not a thinking man’s sport, indeed.
I asked Joe how he got to be an alligator wrangler and he told me he’d originally moved to the area to help his grandparents and was working at a nearby potato farm, shoveling mashed potatoes when his grandfather brought him to the gator farm for the day. For Joe, it was instant love and he began spending so much time at the farm that they eventually hired him full time.
Five years later, he’s leaping off decks onto the backs of 9-foot alligators. “I still can’t believe I get paid for this,” he said. I’m not about to ask for a job, but I know how he feels: In all of my photos with the gators, I’m grinning ear to ear like a little kid, having the time of my life!
Colorado Gators calls this class “the world’s only alligator wrestling course”. To Joe’s knowledge, nobody else offers this kind of hands on experience. The $100 price includes a 3-hour private class, a CD of dozens of photos (all the photos of me with the gators were taken by Joe) as well as a very official “Certificate of Insanity”. Best $100 bucks I’ve ever spent!
To sign up for the world’s only alligator wrestling course call 719-378-2612 at least a week ahead of time. Classes are offered every day of the week. In early August the farm will hold their annual “Gatorfest Alligator Rodeo” where former students compete for biggest gator bragging rights. You must have completed the handling course and take a refresher to compete. Too bad I’ll be in Alaska in August. Next year!
To read more about the history of Colorado Gators, which is actually a tilapia farm that uses alligators to dispose of dead fish, check out my previous post: Colorado Gators! My gator wrangling video is here. :)