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Working Hollywood

An alligator whisperer on the set

June 25, 2012|By Cristy Lytal
  • Jeff Galpin wades through the swamps with alligators on a film set. Galpin works as an alligator wrangler on "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."
Jeff Galpin wades through the swamps with alligators on a film set. Galpin… (John Anderson )

On the Louisiana set of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” last summer, Jeff Galpin wasn’t worried about vampires baring their fangs at the cast and crew. He had other creatures in mind.

“They were filming in the bottoms of some creeks, and we made sure there were no snakes or alligators around to hurt any of the actors or extras,” said the 43-year-old swamp expert. “There were lots of snakes on that set — water moccasins, corn snakes and some king snakes. Most of the time, we just put them in a sack and walk to a different location and let them go. We try to put everything back alive like we found it.”

In the Fox horror flick, which was released Friday, Honest Abe takes a violent approach to the bloodthirsty vampires plotting to overthrow the United States. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov and produced by Tim Burton, the film stars Benjamin Walker and Rufus Sewell.

To keep these actors safe from snakes, gators and other critters, Galpin called upon his decades of swamp savvy. He first tapped into his wild side at age 13, when he found himself caring for an orphaned baby raccoon.

“I basically bottle-fed this thing,” said Galpin, who grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans. “I raised him and wiped his behind. I mean, it was a job for a 13-year-old kid, sneaking him into school and feeding him in my locker.”

After the raccoon reached maturity, a neighbor who ran an endangered species survival center offered Galpin a job cleaning cages for lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats and other exotic animals. In high school, he began volunteering at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and eventually became a state licensed animal rehabilitator.

“Wildlife and Fisheries would bring me [animals that were] shot, wounded, hit by cars,” he said. “Deer, bobcats, raccoons, possums, armadillos. I probably raised over 300 raccoons in my life. I would raise them and get them well and release them again.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Southeastern University and attended veterinary school at Louisiana State University. He left college to pursue a career in law enforcement, working as a narcotics agent and police officer at the New Orleans Police Department before Hollywood came calling.

When the New Orleans production of 1993’s “Undercover Blues” needed an alligator wrangler, the Audubon Zoo recommended Galpin, who before long became the go-to guy for alligators — providing farm-raised ones when the script called for it, removing wild ones from the set when the script didn’t. He also became a stuntman and served as an expert naturalist on several television shows.

“People just need to respect these animals,” he said. “All the animals deserve a chance to live.”

Handle with care: Galpin follows various guidelines for the humane treatment of alligators. “If we’re removing alligators from a set, we’ll lasso them,” he said. “We have to transport them in something that looks like a coffin. It’s padded or cushioned on all the sides. And we transport them in a climate-controlled trailer to keep them always at a decent body temperature in the 80s. There are places to put them humanely and safely. One of our nuisance officers down here has a 500- or 600-acre lake, and he puts all the small ones in there. And there’s a swamp tour that has 1,500 acres of land with a bunch of bayous through it, that doesn’t let anyone hunt or fish on the property.”

In cold blood: Hot weather means hot-headed alligators. “They’re cold-blooded animals,” said Galpin. “If you want to slow them down, you just make them cold. You could do it with simply turning the air conditioner on in a room and dropping it to 70 degrees, which is comfortable to you or me. But for an alligator, that’s really cold. If you put them in 90- or 85-degree water, they get very active. So it’s just understanding them.”

He’s a lefty: When working with alligators, it’s important to pay attention to their preferences. “I could put my hand on an alligator’s back and tell you which way he’s going to strike when he does it,” Galpin said. “I can feel muscles tighten under his skin. I’ve just got a good vibe. Sometimes you watch one, and you realize that he goes to the left more than he goes to right, for some reason. He favors a side.”

Tight-lipped: Alligators are pretty good at keeping their mouths shut. “They have very strong jaws closing, and they react in a hundredth of a second — so quickly that even before you blink, it happens,” said Galpin. “But as long as you can grab the upper and bottom jaws, you can hold an alligator’s mouth shut. The only problem is that when you grab his jaws, he’s going to roll; he’s going to twist; he’s going to shake. He’s going to try to get your hands off of his mouth, which makes it hard. And whatever an alligator grabs, he will rip off, if he’s big enough.”

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