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.