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Florida's alligator wrestlers becoming an endangered species 7-07

By SARAH LARIMER
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - Wanted: Thrill-seeking animal lovers
with cool heads and quick reflexes. Must have finesse, agility and
high tolerance for pain. Apply at wildlife parks across Florida,
where the alligator wrestler is quickly disappearing.

Alligator handlers across South Florida said there is simply less
money, glamour and interest in the profession today then in its glory
days, when crowds flocked to roadside shows. While there are no exact
figures, no one disputes that alligator wrestlers are an endangered
species.

"I believe gator wrestlers are definitely a dying breed," said
James Peacock, wildlife manager at Native Village in Hollywood.
"We're fading out. Just like the cowboys and Indians of yesteryear,
or the Japanese samurai."

These days, tourists would rather ride on Everglades air boats and
view wildlife in its natural habitat, said Nicki E. Grossman,
president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors
Bureau.

"You have to get real. You have to give someone an actual
experience, a relationship with the destination," Grossman said.
"And I think we've come a long way from the days when alligator
wrestling was the big draw."

On a good day, Peacock said he teaches a handful of tourists about
Florida wildlife. Years ago, he said, those shows used to draw more
than 400 visitors. When he started in the business, he could make
about $500 a day in tips. Those days, he says, are over.

Peacock said because of animal television shows and Internet videos,
fewer tourists are interested in seeing his presentations.

"The lessons are being taught in their own home, without harming any
animals. So that's the positive side," Peacock said. "The negative
side is, did I waste the last 17 years of my life learning how to do
this?"

The profession isn't one that former alligator wrestler Jesse Kennon
would encourage many people to go in to these days, especially those
who need a steady income.

"You have to realize, an outdoorsman that lives in the 'glades or
deals with animals is a special type of person," Kennon said. "He's
not the one that can work in an office. An office is just not for
him."

Jeremy Possman, 25, learned how to handle alligators from a member of
the Miccosukee Indian tribe. He said some parents in Miccosukee tribe
used to hope their children learned how to handle the animals because
a good show could secure wealth for the family.

"A long time ago, especially when the tourism of Florida was
skyrocketing, most alligator handlers, they could pull a good amount
of money in a week just off of tips," Possman said. "Nowadays, its
not as good."

Former Seminole Indian tribal chairman and alligator wrestler James
Billie still keeps the finger that an alligator snatched in a jar at
his house. Injuries are normal in the industry and wrestlers say they
generally aren't deterred by a little blood.

"If you do get bit, a lot of times that just means more business,"
Possman said. "Because they're going to come back to see if it's
going to happen again."

Possman said his show is not designed to show his strength. He sits
atop the alligator and grabs a loose portion of its skin under its
mouth to display its sharp teeth. He holds the alligator's mouth shut
with his chin and shows how trappers would tie gator. To end the
show, he allows the alligator to open its mouth, extends his arms and
rests his chin on the alligator's nose.

Daytona Beach resident Bobby Smith, who watched Possman's show at
Everglades Alligator Farm with his family, said though he lives in
Florida, he hadn't seen the tourist staple until this summer.

"I think they're just getting crowded out," Smith said.

Alligator wrestling is a form of live catch modified for
entertainment, Billie said, and as the Indians' need to hunt
alligators has died out, so has the shows.

"We don't have to hunt anymore," Billie said. "We eat bologna
sandwiches like the rest of the world."

Possman said he prefers the term "alligator handler" to "alligator
wrestler," because it lets patrons know his goal with the show is to
pass along knowledge. Possman said today's tourists are turned off by
man vs. beast demonstrations that used to be popular.

"Now, a lot of things have changed to conservation," he said.
"It's more of conserving it than it would be to try and make a show
of it."

None of this fazes Scott Cohen, a gangly 13-year-old with floppy dark
hair and a nagging desire to handle the animals. Cohen, the head
volunteer at Native Village, has been training as a wrestler by using
smaller gators with taped mouths.

Cohen's parents were a bit squeamish at first, but Scott said they've
learned to accept his interest. Hesaid he hopes to someday open an
animal park and sees a good future in the business.

"I've always wanted to experience handling an alligator," he said.

But there's a difference between handling an alligator and jumping on
top of 9 feet of fury.

Scott said he wasn't concerned about waning business or the job's
dangers. At 13, he said, he's fully committed to a life with gator
wrestling, whether the tourism market wants it or not.

"As long as I have all 10 fingers I'm good," he said. "As long as
I have all my body parts, I'm fine."

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