Gator Tales

By: Erin Marvin

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Whether you live in Florida or you're just visiting, you'll have to learn to love our state reptile, the alligator.

Her•pe•to•phobia (hr•p•'tä•'fo•b•ä) n.
1. A persistent and irrational fear of reptiles that compels avoidance, despite understanding by the phobic individual and reassurance by others that there is no real danger. 2. The fear of reptiles.

Ex•po•sure ther•a•py (ik•'spo•zhr 'ther••p) n.
1. Treatment wherein the phobic individual is gradually exposed to the threatening situation or object so he/she can see that no harm befalls him/her; the fear gradually fades. 2. A type of behavior therapy used in the treatment of phobias.

Croc•o•dile tears ('krä•k•dl 'tirs) n.pl.
1. Tears that are not real; a hypocritical show of grief (so called from the ancient belief that crocodiles shed tears while eating their victims). 2. What my editor shed when I tried to beg off this assignment.

They say that the first step in overcoming a phobia is admitting your fear. That's the easy part: The only time I feel comfortable in the vicinity of alligators is when I'm wearing one of them.

However, with my deadline looming, I realized the time had come to overcome this irrational fear. The treatment? Exposure Therapy. My plan was to cure my herpetophobia by spending some quality time with our state reptile.

Deciding that misery loves company, I invited some friends, Sam and Dimitras (both age 9), on the first step in my recovery. Since I'm young, single and childless, it was a sort of "rent-a-kid" program, if you will. The kids agreed to be my tour guides to Sarasota Jungle Gardens, a 10-acre zoological garden that is home to flamingos, monkeys, 'gators and crocs.

We arrived early and headed straight for the morning "Reptile Encounter" show, where trainers hold live alligators and pythons. I sat in the back, figuring that, in the off-chance that one of the crocs unexpectedly leapt from the trainer's arms into the crowd, I could be out the door and back in my car in under 60 seconds. The kids were on their own.

Luckily, the expert trainers manage to keep a good grip on the animals throughout the entire show. One trainer's theory on crocodilians: "People are a lot slimier than reptiles." As a trainer taped the 'gator's mouth shut so that the kids could touch him, she warned us, "It's safe to pet him here, but if you see an alligator in the wild, stay back 50 to 60 feet." No problem - after all, safety first.

After posing for photos with the little guy, Dimitras and Sam wished me luck and sent me off with this piece of advice, "If a 'gator bites you, bite him back."


Survive the Sea of Alligators

Exposure Therapy: Step Two found me zooming past telephone poles adorned with posters of slyly smiling 'gators, all pointing the way to Black Hammock Adventures where Captain Joel Martin was to take me on my first-ever airboat ride.

A few moments after meeting him, my "Crocodile Hunter" jumped on the back of Hammy, the resident gator. The man standing next to me pulled out his Nikon and said half-jokingly, "Careful, we don't want another Siegfried and Roy."

Black Hammock Adventures is on the shores of beautiful Lake Jesup in Oviedo (that's pronounced "oh-vee-doh" for you Yankees). The approximately 10,000-acre lake is home to more than 9,000 gators, the largest concentration of any lake in the U.S. Though local lore says there's an 18-footer somewhere in the lake, the longest 'gator on record here is 13' 2".

Five others joined us, including 12-year-old Wesley, another first-timer (the ride was a reward for finishing all of his homework that week). I was a little nervous after hearing Captain Martin's story about a 'gator who jumped onto the airboat when he got too close to her nest, but I hadn't come this far to let one renegade 'gator set me back in my treatment. And I didn't want to look like a coward in front of a 12-year-old.

I boarded the airboat, donned some fashionable ear protectors and sunglasses, and psyched myself up.

We sped across Lake Jesup at 30 mph, the wind whipping through our hair and mosquitoes smacking into our sunglasses like lovebugs on windshields. Captain Martin maneuvered us into swampy areas where unsuspecting 'gators splashed into the water to the left and right of us. We were lucky: We saw at least a dozen 'gators during the half-hour trip.

Thrilled that the experience had been so exciting, and feeling remarkably pulled-together, I headed over to the gift shop where T-shirts for sale proclaimed, "I survived the sea of alligators." It was the perfect memento of my first airboat ride. I ambled over to the Black Hammock Restaurant to eat 'gator for lunch. It's nice being at the top of the food chain.


Grunts and Gator Trainers

This was to be the final - and possibly most painful - session of reptilian rehabilitation. I called Gatorland, "The Alligator Capital of the World," to arrange Step Four.

Friendly Amber told me about their "Trainer-for-a-Day" program: I'd help move a crocodilian (and not a small one, she assured me - a seven- or eight-footer); feed Chester, the 12-foot "dog-eating alligator" (visions of sacrificed Chihuahuas danced in my head); and lots of other fun (read: crazy) stuff. I thanked her for the information and hung up, convinced that no cure was worth getting in the pen with Chester.

A week later I arrived in Orlando at Gatorland, a 110-acre "Old Florida" theme park and wildlife preserve famous for its daily "Gator Jumparoo" and "Gator Wrestlin'" shows. I entered through a monstrous, gaping 'gator mouth; inside, huge skins decorated walls and a small sign on one of the aquariums said, "What is a grunt? A baby 'gator, a cry for help from an alligator and a new employee at Gatorland."

I met up with Mike Hileman, a veteran wrestler/trainer who's been at Gatorland for about 20 years; he started the Trainer-for-a-Day Program a year or so ago. Although he's been bitten, Mike still has all his digits.

Mike asked me to sign a waiver that, he explained, basically says that if-anything-happens-it's-anyone's-fault-but-his. And then, I was ready to begin my training. He checked my hands to see if they were shaking before we headed over to the holding area to move a nine-foot, 180-pound crocodile. Silly man.

We met up with another trainer/wrestler/insane person, and Ally, my fellow trainer-for-a-day, a young Scotsman eager to get started. Ally inquired about job openings with Gatorland. Nothing was available at the moment, Mike said, but assured him they had a lot of turnover.

Mike asked for a volunteer to get inside the croc's pen and rope it so that we could haul it over to the nearby lake for release.

While Ally went bravely into battle, I asked what would happen if the croc got loose once it was out of the holding area.

"Plan B," he replied.

"What's Plan B?" I asked, "Notify next of kin?"

"This is Plan B," he said, pulling out a 12-gauge shotgun with three-inch slugs.

"Is that a tranquilizer?" I asked.

"Yeah," he laughed, "a permanent tranquilizer."

After we successfully moved the croc to its new home, we headed over to the breeding marsh to feed some 'gators.

Once there, they brought out a bucket of meat and some rubber gloves. Then they called for the 'gators. "Hey 'gators! Come on 'gators!" In minutes, dozens of huge, hungry alligators had lumbered up onto the bank where we were waiting. I imagined myself as the 'gators must: on a dinner plate, with a sprig of parsley tucked behind my ear.

It crossed my mind to make a run for it. I asked casually through chattering teeth if it was better to run straight or zig-zag when fleeing from a crocodilian. Our guide helpfully reminded me that 'gators can run up to 30 mph over short distances and climb chain-link fences. Then he gave me this helpful piece of advice: "Don't run. Just trip the person you're with and walk."

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