February 09, 2009
The contest is part of the first annual Seminole Okalee Indian Festival, an art, music and culture fair showcasing the replica of an authentic Seminole village tucked snugly behind an outdoor mall and the casino parking lot.
The rules of competitive deep-water gator-wrestling are simple and few. ''I don't want to see no hitting the alligator, no jabbing the alligator,'' said veteran wrestler Paul Simmons, now a maintenance foreman for the Seminole Tribe but serving as a judge. ``Don't disrespect the alligator.''
If a man bled all over the place, he could be disqualified at the judges' discretion; if it was just a nick, man-flesh snagged on gator-tooth, they'd probably let it go.
Every man signed a waiver acknowledging that ALLIGATOR WRESTLING IS VERY DANGEROUS and involves the risk of serious injury and/or death and/or property damage.
Gators were drawn at random, with judges rating performances on showmanship, originality, difficulty and variety of stunts, not unlike figure skating or rodeo, except in deep-water gator-wrestling a man doesn't start astride his gator.
The gator gets tossed into seven feet of water and the man dives in to get him.
Billy Walker did this and had the misfortune of drawing a gator who came willingly, then more or less took a nap on the beach beside the pool.
Shea Hayley had the misfortune of drawing a gator who did not come willingly at all.
It was an eight-footer and Hayley grabbed him by the snout -- unwisely, perhaps, in hindsight. The gator thrashed out of his grip, snapped viciously, everybody screamed, and Hayley had to swim very fast backward to keep ownership of his hands.
He looked scared but he gulped some air and went down again. He was breathing hard when he got the thing out and went into his routine: the nail-clip, sticking a hand in the gator's mouth and whipping it out before the jaws whomped shut; bulldogging, holding the gator's snout shut with his chin alone; the Florida smile, bending the gator's head back and displaying its toothy maw to the crowd.
If you think the gator didn't really want to smile, you're probably right. ''I believe alligators probably would much rather be left alone,'' said Kent Vliet, professor of crocodilian biology at the University of Florida, this week.
''If you gave these gators the opportunity, they'd make every attempt to escape having to go through this again.'' But, he added, ``I don't think most of those routines are harmful to the animal at all.''
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