By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
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By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Puig is reluctant to be typecast, though. In addition to Extreme Snorkeler and Swamp Fabio, there is also Puig the Naturalist. "He can tell you more about sharks and alligators than just about any marine biologist," proclaims Michael Lozoff, a lawyer for Michele Pommier Models who helps Puig and Rackley with television contracts. (The Miami Beach agency manages Heaney-Grier's modeling stints.) After nearly 30 years of what he describes as "trial and error research," Puig has collected numerous firsthand observations. Among the findings:
*No alligator likes to have its mouth held shut.
*Each alligator has its own personality. Some have really bad tempers.
*A human being can exhaust an eight-foot alligator by riding on its back.
*When a human being spooks an alligator that has been resting on the bottom of a swamp and the water becomes opaque with swirling mud, the human being can be made to feel "very uneasy."
*"It's not that humanity is threatened by alligators. It's more like alligators are threatened by humanity."
Puig was born in Havana in 1954. Six years later his mother whisked him and his three sisters to Miami after his father, a Bacardi executive, was executed by Castro's soldiers. The family later moved to Gainesville, where Puig began his investigations into human interaction with the Alligator mississipiensis, nabbing his first at age twelve ("I was just trying to see if I could catch an alligator by hand").
As he approached bigger and bigger alligators, Puig says he realized that he had a "God-given talent" for working with the creatures. Or more specifically, for grabbing them from behind and riding them. "It's my instinct to do this," says Puig, whose first ride was on an eight-foot gator when he was just eighteen.
Despite having rubbed elbows with gators for most of his life, Puig says he is still learning about them. His most astonishing lesson came two months ago when he discovered what he has dubbed "the soft touch." Snorkeling along a bed of muck under six feet of water in the Everglades, Puig came face-to-face with a large specimen. With Rackley videotaping, Puig delicately grabbed the skin under the reptile's lower jaw and began pushing the animal's head up. The alligator did not resist and was soon suspended in the water, perpendicular to the bottom.
"It's a delicate balance," says Puig, trying to explain the alligator's zenlike response. "It's like the bottom is coming up from under him or something like that. It's real strange. We sit down and try to analyze what's really going on in his head. It ain't like I can have a conversation with him and say, 'How do you feel when somebody is pushing you?'" But while Puig can't talk like an alligator, he has begun to think like one: "The alligator thinks, 'Okay, I'm down in my lair. Nothing can bother me here. I'm okay.'"
If one does not touch the alligator the right way, however, "he'll just explode like a stick of dynamite down there," Puig warns.
"You always treat 'em like a loaded gun," seconds Miami wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski, who has caught hundreds of alligators during his career. Wasilewski, who owns an animal-catching service called Natural Selections, says Puig's so-called soft touch technique works because alligators in their native habitat actually fear human beings. Thus their instinct -- sometimes -- is to remain calm until they can get away. Wasilewski has used the technique for years, though he recommends a rope.
He also advises that Puig make sure state wildlife officers won't interpret his alligator antics as violating the law. State regulations prohibit the unauthorized "taking, pursuing, and molesting" of alligators, which are listed as a "species of special concern." Puig says he has the required permits to do what he does with gators and insists he's doing nothing illegal with them.
Remarkably, Puig has yet to feel any gator teeth against his own flesh, if you don't count the alligator tooth necklace he often wears. But he has felt the sting of a shark bite. Several. He was gashed in the inner thigh by a nurse shark last year, and he has little sensation in his right thumb from one of two lemon shark attacks.
Puig began trying to catch sharks by hand when he moved to the Keys twenty years ago after dropping out of a Gainesville community college. "As for challenges in the wild and hunting, that's about as good as it gets," Puig says, adding that he disdains spearguns and hooks ("It's more fair to the shark that way").
He credits Rackley for designing a technique called "bulldogging," which consists of running a boat after a shark, crouching on the bow, and flopping down onto the shark for a piggyback ride.
Having videotaped this stunt numerous times with a variety of sharks, Rackley is not eager to do it again. "I'm over the bulldogging," he says. "It's a calculated risk. If you do it every day, you're not going to be alive."
Puig nods in agreement. But despite the admitted danger, he remains eager to continue his dances with sharks. He calls his recent ride on the fourteen-foot hammerhead "a gift from God. A couple years ago I didn't think that was possible." He says the next logical challenge is riding a great white shark, the notorious species that can grow to twenty feet. "I know it can be done," he declares. "I know it could also kill you."