Coloradans are known for death-defying entertainments, from ice climbing to four-wheeling. But here’s one you may not have heard of: alligator wrestling. The Colorado Gators attraction in the San Luis Valley trains people this very unusual activity. Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee took the class, and lived to tell the tale.
CPR's Anna Panoka helped produce the following report:
JAY YOUNG: "Two rules: don’t hesitate, okay? He who hesitates gets bit. Don’t think about it. Alligator wrestling is not a thinking man’s sport."
REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: Jay Young, the owner of Colorado Gators, is standing in a pool full of two-foot alligators. We’re five minutes into gator-handling class and I’m already intimidated. And then Young pulls up our first assignment.
YOUNG: "Aw, you’re a good boy, huh.”
REPORTER: “He’s hissing”
YOUNG: “Yeah, they do that sometimes. Means they like ya.”
REPORTER: Young looks exactly like central casting’s idea of an alligator wrestler. He’s got a big, crazy grin, a ponytail, and he’s dressed in all black from his sopping jeans to his battered cowboy hat studded with gator teeth.
YOUNG: “One, two, three jump!”
REPORTER: “Agh! Okay, sorry...”
YOUNG: “Don’t let go. That’s rule number two!”
REPORTER: When I first heard about alligator wrestling classes, I assumed I’d be in for a thrilling, but basically safe afternoon; probably the gators would be pretty tame, or old and slow, or their mouths would be taped shut or something. No. This is just really scary. Young says he got the idea to offer the class from a friend he enlisted to help move some gators.
YOUNG: "He said, 'Man, this is great, this is better than skydiving! You should charge people to do take classes and learn how to do this.' So it’s all his fault."
REPORTER: Colorado Gaters was started by Young’s parents by accident. Back in the '70s they bought a geothermal spring here, twenty miles north of Alamosa, and used its naturally tropical water to raise tilapia.
YOUNG: "In 1987, then, we got our first alligators to be garbage disposals for the fish farm. When we had dead fish in the tanks and when we filleted fish, the carcasses would go to the alligators. So that’s all they were in the beginning -- is pets that disposed of dead fish for us."
REPORTER: Young does still raise tilapia in one of the buildings here. But the gaters have gone from waste management to center stage. There are ponds and pools and lagoons of them, along with dozens of other exotic species the attraction’s picked up over the years. Everything here, from the gator pens to the emu enclosure has a Do-It-Yourself look, like hobby that’s gotten WAY out of hand.
KID: "Are you going to throw the alligator one more piece?"
YOUNG: "As soon as we opened up to the public and let people come in and see our alligators, other people’s pet alligators started showing up here. We’ve literally come to work and found then on the doorstep."
REPORTER: However they get there, these guys are now fair game for some gator rangling. This isn’t really wrestling. With the little ones we just grabbed them and hauled them up. For Round Two, they’re too big for that. These guys are a couple of feet long. You have to get ahold of the tail, drag them ashore, and pin them down.
YOUNG: "This guys going to turn and try to bite you, I can almost guarantee it. And you’re going to have to turn around to keep him from biting you.:
REPORTER: I really to want be brave and do this. But I right here, I’m chickening out. I’m not getting in that pool, I don’t care what Young says.
YOUNG: " Injuries are few and far between. If you listen to the instructions, very few people get hurt. And most who do get hurt wear it with pride. I mean, It’s a red badge of courage: ‘I got a wound from an alligator,' you know."
REPORTER: C’mon, how many lost fingers, really?
YOUNG: "We’ve only lost one finger. And technically it wasn’t lost. I pried it out of the alligator’s mouth and sent it with him to the hospital and they decided not to reattach it. So it wasn’t lost, it was thrown away at the hospital."
REPORTER: This might all sound a little mean to the alligator, but Young actually has an ulterior motive for offering the class; it gives him a chance to check his gators for wounds. Alligators are territorial, they fight a lot. So while my classmate pins down a gator, Young and I go to work with the antibiotic cream.
JOE HANEL, Alligator Handler: “Poor baby, look at you.”
REPORTER: “Poor brutal, strong, trying to bite you baby."
REPORTER: Right now, I would be happy to call it a day. But gator wrestling class has quite the grand finale. Young dives into a pond with some of the biggest gators, ropes one that has to be at least seven feet long and leads her across the pool. Once he gets her to shore, it’s our job to sit on her back and keep her controlled. It feels like straddling a scaly time bomb.
YOUNG: "So you grab that place at the back of her skull there and lean back like this, pull her head back, ‘kay. Then we’re going to go ahead and take a quick picture for the insurance company in case somebody gets hurt again. I’m just kidding; we don’t have insurance."
REPORTER: It’s obvious Young loves these gators -- he says he never gets tired of working with them.
REPORTER: “Do they have much personality once you get to know them?”
YOUNG: “They do. They’re mean. For the most part they’re mean.”
REPORTER: At least they are when they’re getting hauled out and doctored. Young may be able to keep his sense of humor when faced with those killer jaws. Me? I’ll take my gators on the Nature Channel from now on, thanks.