How to Wrangle An Alligator

My moment with the big girl. The power of that beast was incredible. I wish I had a recording of the sounds she was making. This was like sitting on a dragon!

I like to try new things. When I lived in Virginia, I took sailing lessons on the Potomac River. In Maine, I went toboganning and in New Mexico, I got certified as a rattlesnake wrangler.

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.

Colorado Gators is a dangerous place!

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.

We started small, this guy is about 5 years old, and worked our way up…

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.

Joe giving a 9-foot female an injection of antibiotics after a fight with the most dominant female in the park. Notice the wounds on her face. Joe confessed he’s terrified of needles. That’s something, coming from a man sitting on top of an angry alligator like it’s a park bench.

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.

Alligator snapping turtle! I still have bruises on my legs from picking up this guy.

Joe with Osiris, the very volatile Nile Crocodile

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.

My fifth gator, about five feet long

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…

Professional gator wrangler Joe showing us how it’s done on one of the big girls. This position, where the front feet are lifted off the ground is when a gator is considered officially wrangled.

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.

Drew’s gator, wrangled. He earned this one!

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!

This place has the best signs. The pier/ deck in the background was the stage for Joe’s crazy stunt.

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.

Joe performing the chin trick, another ridiculously dangerous move. It took him a year of handling alligators to work up to this point.

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!

Totally thrilled to have wrangled my first gator!

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. :)

Class Photo!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently traveling the backroads from New Mexico to Alaska, writing and living out of a tiny Teardrop camper. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
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35 Responses to How to Wrangle An Alligator

  1. Bill Chance says:

    Wow, what an adventure! My hat is off.

    Looking at the photos – I think I’m more frightened by the snapping turtle. That might be because I have been exposed to them, but never touched a gator (unless you count boots, purse, or po-boy).

    Seen some big-uns north of New Orleans, though. Saw one that looked like a dinosaur.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. LA Edwards says:

    Wow! Gators in Colorado. Go figure. And a brave girl you are.

  3. Spilledperfume says:

    I’ve been reading your blog ever since a friend gave me the link. You are awesome! I can’t believe you wrangled alligators.

    Love your blog.

  4. Don West says:

    Reading this had me grinning from ear to ear too. Great job wrangling them gators girl!

  5. evea192 says:

    Wow, u need a medal or some thing, this was wicked….

  6. mountainmae says:

    OMG These are some classic shots that I’m sure you will long remember. I celebrate your….well….craziness. Living life to the full is grand and we get to see pictures. Life is good.

  7. That’s sweet! Way to get after it.

  8. Mary Kate says:

    Odd question –

    When you take little side detours like this one, what do you do with your dogs? My husband and I have a summer of traveling planned with our truck and a tent – and our two dogs. I worry that it will be too hot to leave the dogs in the truck for some things we want to experience!

    • Great question! But I’m not sure my answer will help you all that much. When it’s too hot for the dogs to wait in the car (over 65 degrees in full sun) I put them in the Teardrop. It doesn’t get hot the way the car does and with the skylight and windows open, it makes for a very nice rolling dog house. Before I had the Teardrop, traveling with the dogs in the summer was tricky. Usually, I just planned to drive in the heat of the day and do things that didn’t involve the dogs in the early morning and evening. My dogs are also good about being tied somewhere so if there’s shade and I can keep an eye on them, that was sometimes an option. Does your truck have a camper top? Those are usually pretty dog friendly, especially if it has screening on the sides to allow for airflow. A reflective windshield screen can make a big difference in the temp of your car too. Don’t take chances though! Cars get hotter faster than you might think. When I worked at the vet hospital in college we had a few emergency cases come in and they were always so heartbreaking.

  9. Fresh from my desk... says:

    Love this post! Awesome adventure.

  10. Tammy says:

    Whoot Whoot!!! Sounds like a great day was had by all….maybe not by the embarassed Gators, but that’s what they get for free food.

    Love your Blog.

    Tammy www. tincanramble.com

  11. WOW, and I thought I did crazy stuff ! This is an absolutely an amazing experience, and love your whole story and video of your day alligator wrestling. Think I’ll leave this one for the youngin’s like you. Congrats on a harm-free day!

  12. Jeff says:

    After reading your awesome blog for about two months now, you get the “coolest girl in the world award” for 2012, maybe even 2013.

  13. redmitten says:

    and i like how none of you ever lose your hat. oh yeah boy!

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  17. ritaroberts says:

    Reblogged this on Ritaroberts's Blog and commented:
    I thought this was well worth a Reblog.The Blonde Coyote is so adventurous

  18. ritaroberts says:

    Hi Mary as you see I reblogged this post as I thought everyone should see the brave things you get up to. I admire your courage in trying anything to achieve your goals and this with the alligators is simply amazing. Thanks so much for sharing.

  19. Clifford and I have been to the gator farm, even had our picture taken with a little gator, but NO WAY would I do what you did! What a wonderful crazy thing – glad you had such a good time and left with all your appendages.

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