About this time last week, I was wrestling an alligator in Florida.
Okay, so he (she?) was only about two feet long, and his (her?) snout had been taped shut with electrical tape by a handler. And I wasn’t exactly wrestling the beast, so much as trying to kiss it.
And while this test of strength and wits took place at the Everglades Alligator Farm — and this young gator may be destined to someday become a high-fashion bag or a pair of cowboy boots — it served the purpose of getting me up close and personal with North America’s largest reptile.
Certainly, I wasn’t going to duplicate the stunt in nearby Everglades National Park (www.nps.gov/ever).
With an estimated 200,000 wild alligators in the park (out of about 1.5 million throughout Florida), the unique “sea of grass” known as the Everglades has been a conservation success story … thanks in part to alligator farming.
As recently as the 1950s, the American alligator was threatened with extinction. The prehistoric reptile was being heavily poached to satisfy a demand for high-fashion items, including shoes, belts and purses.
It was on the endangered species list when the State of Florida licensed commercial alligator farming in the 1980s. Suddenly, the market suddenly had a legal source of hides and meat — and the wild population rapidly rebounded. By 1987, the gator was no longer “endangered.”
I saw about a dozen wild Everglades gators while walking the Anhinga Trail, near a national-park visitor center west of Homestead. This half-mile boardwalk crosses a seasonal swamp; a park ranger assured me that the reptiles’ numbers would greatly increase by the arid season in mid-winter, when many other sources of water had dried up.
On this day, the animals mostly lay quietly in the water-side grasses beneath the boardwalk, or partially submerged in the shallow water. But I didn’t have any fantasies about reaching out to stroke their thick, dark hides. Granted, they can only see sideways — not directly in front of them, and certainly not behind — but 80 teeth are nothing to mess around with.
Back at the Everglades Alligator Farm (www.everglades.com), I enjoyed the Disney-like stage show and feeding exhibition, explored the pens filled with baby gators and looked over the alligator breeding pond. But I was most impressed with an airboat ride.
Loud and wet, these flat-bottomed boats carry as many as 30 visitors on a two-mile tour of the swamp next to the farm. They are propelled forward by a column of air that enables them to ride above a seemingly infinite expanse of sawgrass, even with little or no water beneath.
Rare panthers live in this ecosystem, although I saw none. But I did see numerous wildflowers found nowhere else on earth. And I saw several more wild gators.