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If you are one of the dozens of people in South Florida who were terrorized by alligators in your back yard during the past year, you might have called Pesky Critters or some other wildlife-catching service. These folks are happy to come out and remove the animal in question. Manny Puig takes a more aggressive approach in his dealings with large reptiles: He shows up in their back yards.
For years now the 43-year-old Keys resident has been snorkeling down to the bottom of various Everglades sloughs, finding a nice big gator, looking the beast in the eye, then jumping on its scaly back and taking the terrified animal for a brief and thrilling ride.
Puig has recently diversified into killer sharks.
A videotape screened exclusively by New Times shows his latest stunt: Armed with only his swimming trunks and fins, Puig darts down toward a fourteen-foot hammerhead, which is tearing into a clump of dead fish placed as bait offshore of Big Pine Key. Puig grabs the creature's dorsal fin with his bare hands. The spooked shark zooms away, with Puig barely holding on. The hammerhead and its human cargo disappear into the blue yonder faster than the cameraman can follow.
Puig says he rode the shark for nearly a minute until he ran out of air and had to let go. He was dragged along so quickly that the water almost tore off his mask.
If these feats sound too crazed to be true, consider that Puig does them for kicks, routinely risking life and limb simply for the rush of riding big underwater predators.
Now he wants a little compensation.
Last year Puig emerged from the depths of obscurity to claim his fifteen minutes of fame, and a bit of monetary reward, as the star of several breathless tabloid television segments. You might have caught his appearance on an episode of Inside Edition last fall. Host Deborah Norville gushed: "He looks like Fabio, lives like Tarzan, and wrestles alligators and sharks.... He's part myth, part legend, and all man." This drivel was followed by video footage of Puig swimming up to an eight-foot alligator on the bottom of a swamp, grabbing it by the shoulders, and riding it for a few seconds before the alligator escaped in a swirl of muddy water.
Puig's encounters have aired on two more obscure TV magazines -- The Extremist, which covers the world of extreme sports, and Ordinary/Extraordinary, a program devoted to sensationalist stories of any stripe. Puig has also been seen on the German television show Die Reporter, which pronounced him "a cross between Tarzan and Crocodile Dundee."
Puig doesn't mind the movie monikers or even the Fabio comparison, which stems from Puig's prominent pectorals and shoulder-length brown (though slightly graying) hair.
But lump him in with "alligator wrestlers" -- who work with captive animals -- and you're likely to ruffle Puig's feathers. "I like to [grab alligators] in the purest and most natural way possible," Puig explains during a rare moment of calm in the living room of his sister's tony South Miami house, where he stays when not at home on Little Torch Key.
Puig's first taste of fame was a result of his work with Mehgan Heaney-Grier, a twenty-year-old model from Little Torch Key who holds the U.S. women's free-diving record. Last August, Heaney-Grier plumbed to 165 feet without an oxygen tank, breaking her own mark and making a splash in the national media. People magazine and ABC's PrimeTime Live spotlighted the comely diver. In the process the world learned of her equally aquatic coaches -- Puig and 31-year-old Mark Rackley, who has been Heaney-Grier's boyfriend since he met her in the Keys two years ago.
Puig himself has free dived to a depth of 170 feet, about two-thirds of the way to the current men's world record of 243 feet. But he believes that his calling lies in shallower waters -- where his friends the sharks and gators hang out.
Puig's decision to publicize his more unusual talents stems in part from his economic situation. He grew tired of eking out a living as a commercial spearfisher in the Keys. Fortunately Rackley has made it a habit to record Puig's underwater exploits with a video camera. Inside Edition reportedly paid $10,000 for footage of Puig -- about as much as he used to earn in an entire year of spearing fish.
But Puig and Rackley have no intention of relying solely on the mercurial appetites of tabloid TV producers. Instead, they are plotting their own media venture. They are currently logging tape in a Miami studio for a series of videos showcasing Puig's derring-do.
Production plans are sketchy, but Puig says Heaney-Grier will serve as host for the series, which he hopes will lure a major distributor capable of marketing the videos worldwide. Puig is also trying to position himself for movie work. Last year he nabbed a nonspeaking bit part as a swamp dweller named Cousin Leon in a still unreleased television movie, Maximum Bob. He also worked behind the scenes as an alligator handler for that production and for the upcoming movie Wild Things, starring Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon, parts of which were filmed in Big Cypress Preserve and Biscayne National Park.