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Gator grappling

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2001


TAMPA -- Before you start gator wrasslin', it's a good idea to learn a little about your opponent.

"Under no circumstances should you approach an alligator closely," warns the University of Florida's Web site. "They are quite agile, even on land. ... "

Tom Storm, however, said not to worry. Bad Bob, the 81/2-foot, 250-pound reptile at my feet, was quite comfortable around people.

"He really isn't that bad," said Storm, a Seminole Indian who makes his living handling alligators, snakes and turtles. "He just doesn't listen."

Most people probably wonder why anybody would want to wrestle an alligator in the first place. But Storm said the answer is simple:

"It's for the adrenaline rush," he said. "Because it certainly isn't for the limelight or the girls. Because let me tell you ... there is no limelight and there are no girls."

Gator wrasslin' (and it's not really wrestling, because if you actually tried to take on one of these beasts mano y garto, the alligator would win) is one of those thrill sports most folks never will understand.

Bungee jumping, cliff diving, surfing in a hurricane ... it's hard to appreciate the rush you get after doing something stupid and surviving.

Storm, a member of the Otter Clan, started "handling" gators when he was 10. At first it was just for fun, then it became work.

"After a while you get hooked on the adrenaline," he said. "That is worth more than any paycheck."

Contrary to popular belief, the "sport" of gator wrestling isn't rooted in ancient history. "It was started by a white man in Miami during the 1920s," Storm said. "It was all for the tourists."

Storm's grandfather learned how to handle the big reptiles, then passed the skill on to his son, who passed it on to Storm.

The job does have its hazards.

"I was handling a gator one day, it spun around and took off my thumb," Storm said. "It happens."

That said, Storm grabbed Bad Bob by the jaws and dragged him toward my feet.

"The first thing I'll do is show you a few moves," Storm said as he grappled with Bob for a few minutes, then pulled the animal's jaws apart and stuck his head in its mouth. "No way am I doing that," I said. "No way."

Storm told me not to worry. He'd been working with Bob for several years and Bob had not bitten Storm.

Fortunately, the temperature was in the low 50s. Alligators are cold-blooded reptiles and as a result, move more slowly when the mercury drops. The cold is like Mother Nature's Prozac. It chills them right out.

"Always approach an alligator from behind," Storm said. "They can move pretty quickly straight ahead, but only for a few feet."

Bad Bob looked like he was sleeping. But I knew better, having once had a run-in on a hiking trail with a 10-footer in north Florida that resulted in a 100-meter dash record for a man and a backpack.

"Just sit on his back and grab his jaws," Storm said.

Some primordial voice deep inside me said this was a bad idea. I liked my fingers, all 10 of them, and my hands for that matter. But Storm kept egging me on.

"Use both hands," he said. "And whatever you do, don't let go."

So I grabbed Bob's jaws and held tight. His left eye opened slightly as if to say, "Now I got you where I want you."

Then I lifted his head off the ground as Storm instructed.

"Now, lean forward as far as you can," he said. "Take his snout and put it between you chin and chest."

Wait a minute, I thought ... sounds a lot like Boy Scout camp when they sent me off searching for a smoke shifter and some dehydrated ice. Forget about my fingers and hands, how would I function without a nose?

But putting my trust in Storm, I followed his orders and put the gator's mouth between my chin and chest.

"Good," Storm said. "Now lift your arms out to your sides."

I did as requested, then suddenly remembered Storm's original words about holding on with both hands.

By now Storm was laughing.

"Okay ... got it," I said, as the gator's warm breath filled my nostrils. "Now what do I do?"

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