Two Sundays ago Rocky Jim Jr., a Miccosukee Indian who lives in South Florida, quit a job he’d been doing for more than 30 years.
His decision was prompted by the fact that his hand was firmly encased in the mouth of a large alligator.
Jim had been wrestling gators since he was 13 years old, but having been bitten several times previously and understanding that if the large reptile now clamped onto his hand began to thrash, as is natural, he would lose his appendage, he decided it was time to step down.
Jim was the last of his 600-member tribe still wrestling alligators at the Miccosukee Indian Village near Miami.
Alligator wrestling is considered a Native American tradition, first popularized in the early 1900s by a white man born in the US of Irish immigrants, Henry Coppinger Jr, according to Agence France-Presse.
“Coppinger himself wrestled alligators, and recruited natives – who lived alongside the reptiles and hunted them – to perform, too,” according to the wire service. “Paying crowds flocked to see men climb on alligators’ backs, open their jaws and flip them over – with the effect of making them go limp for a few minutes.”
While the term “alligator wrestling” might imply an aggressive man-versus-beast matchup, it’s actually more a ritualistic dance, one based on respect.
Jim, 44, was known for pulling wild, hissing alligators from the water by their tails, then tip-toeing around them, stroking them, tapping them, and getting close enough to go nose-to-nose with them, literally.
For almost a century, alligator wrestling was a fixture at Florida’s roadside parks, river docks and Native American villages.
In their heyday, alligator wrestlers could earn $1,000 a week in tips, according to 2012 South Florida Sun-Sentinel story.
Today, however, the practice is on the decline. Theme parks such as Disney World have diverted tourists’ attention. It is criticized by animal rights groups. There are more lucrative ways for tribes to generate revenue, including gaming and hotels. And the idea of going mano en garra with a 10-foot reptile isn’t appealing to younger tribe members, who are increasingly interested in modern society.
There are still some native alligator wrestlers among the larger Seminole tribe of some 2,000 people, but most have decided to do it not as a tourist attraction, but as a way of keeping traditional Seminole culture alive, according to Agence France-Presse.
Jim’s final performance went awry when he coaxed the alligator’s mouth open by gently tapping its snout, then placed his hand inside.
While the move seems incredibly risky, it’s apparently only dangerous if something touches the alligator’s palate, which causes the reptile’s jaws to reflexively snap shut.
As Jim removed his hand, he rotated it slightly and accidentally grazed one of the alligator’s 80 teeth.
The jaws slammed together instantly. Jim’s first thought as he looked at his hand inside the gator’s mouth was “don’t shake,” he told AFP.
“If it shakes, my hand is going to go with it,” he said, describing the thrashing motion alligators use to slice up fresh meat, much the same way as sharks. “Its natural instinct is to do that.”
Luckily, the gator didn’t thrash and Jim kept his hand. Another alligator wrestler helped pry open the reptile’s jaws and Jim was left with seven puncture wounds.
While there are still a few individuals wrestling alligators for public consumption in South Florida, Rocky Jim Jr. is no longer among them. And he’s OK with that.
(Top: Rocky Jim Jr. wrestling an alligator at the Miccosukee Indian Village near Miami.)