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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE | Culture

It's a Low-Pay Job (and You May Get Eaten), but Somebody's Got to Do It

Undaunted by the U.S. labor surplus, Florida's Seminoles are advertising for a gator wrestler.

September 12, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — It's a job opening with teeth. In jaws that can snap a spine. In an animal as ornery as any on Earth.

For the first time in tribal history, the Seminole Indians have turned to the newspaper classifieds to fill positions Native Americans traditionally have held.

"WANTED: alligator wrestler," reads the ad that ran last week in Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. "Must be brave and a risk taker."

Indeed.

The pay: low--$8 an hour to start.

The benefits: minimal.

The risks: off the chart.

"The first thing I tell people is, 'You will be bitten,' " said Mike Bailey, the head alligator wrestler at the Seminole Okalee Village & Museum. "You can't be an alligator wrestler and walk away without bleeding."

Still, with that warning, and in these economic good times, there are applicants. One man, a charter boat captain experienced with sharks, auditioned last week with a gator that had its jaws taped shut. Four more hopefuls are scheduled for tryouts Wednesday. None are Seminoles.

"Tribal members don't want to do this," said Alexandra Frank, the Seminole village manager. "We have been pushing education: Go to school, college, get a good job, managerial positions. And they have been doing that."

With five gambling casinos, several tobacco stores and a small aircraft manufacturing plant run by the Seminoles, many in the 2,600-member tribe are more at home in the boardroom than in the saw grass marsh. With estimated tribal revenues of more than $500 million a year, young Seminoles who once might have pursued deer now are chasing law degrees.

Admits Frank: "This alligator-wrestling job really doesn't pay a lot. If you really like doing it, it's OK. But there's no upward mobility. Where do you go?"

Good question. Bailey, a wiry 22-year-old who has been wrangling reptiles since he was a lad, dreams of a career with the state game commission. In the meantime, he performs up to four shows a day for visitors who often can't decide if what they are seeing is courageous or foolhardy.

Stripping off his shirt, Bailey dives into a small swimming pool and emerges seconds later cradling a writhing 8-foot alligator--which not only outweighs him but has 80 teeth and a powerful, whipsaw tail. Then Bailey pins the gator to the sand, straddles the beast and pries open its jaws.

Throughout the show, Bailey keeps up a continuous patter, dishing out tribal lore and natural science.

He is not a Native American, but he respects and honors tribal traditions, he says. Although he has been bitten three times in recent years, Bailey insists that, with training and caution, alligator wrestling is relatively safe.

But accidents happen. Nearly three years ago, Kenny Cypress, 27, was performing at the Miccosukee Tribe's cultural center. He almost died when he stuck his head into the jaws of a 10-foot alligator and the animal chomped down. It took two men and a pry bar to free Cypress, who suffered 10 puncture wounds.

And in February, Seminole Chief James Billie, 55, lost the ring finger on his right hand when he decided to jump into the gator pit for the first time in years before about 50 visitors at the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. "Several Seminole boys have given their limbs to alligators," Billie told reporters at the hospital. "I used to laugh at them. I'm not laughing anymore."

Alligator wrestling long has been an honored occupation among Seminoles and their relatives, the Miccosukees, who were driven into the Florida Everglades during a series of Indian wars in the early 1800s. The gators were a source of food and their hides had commercial value. To capture the beasts, the Indians grappled them out of their deep-water holes.

But the man credited with introducing alligator wrestling as a tourist lure is the Miami-born son of an Irish immigrant. Henry Coppinger Jr. grew up on the Miami River and, according to historian Patsy West, began to perform with gators in 1919 at his father's tropical gardens.

As the fad spread to other South Florida tourist parks, the acts were filmed and shown on movie theater newsreels all over the U.S.--which "so popularized alligator wrestling that it became an activity synonymous with the Florida Seminoles," West wrote in her book, "The Enduring Seminoles."

Alligator wrestling today is more "Animal Planet" than World Wrestling Federation, as protests have led to a ban on blatant abuse.

"Alligators are beautiful creatures, a part of Florida and our heritage," Frank said. "We respect them."

*

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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