By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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.
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."
Now that his amateur days are over, however, Puig is looking for someone, preferably a big-time television producer, to pay him to ride Jaws.
So far he hasn't had any bites. But Puig is envisioning other possibilities: "I wouldn't mind getting into the water with polar bears."
Rackley makes a face suggesting he might mind a little, but he remains faithful to his pal's inexplicable call of the wild: "Wherever Manny goes, I go in right behind him.