Swamp Man

Glenn Wilsey reinvented himself around the lure of the alligator

Today's Gladesman, it would seem, is more concerned with his origins than the English nobility.

Down the road at Gator Park, on a large front porch of the attraction's main building, rugged employees share their last cigarette of the day and suck down light domestic beer. Sitting in their midst is 42-year-old Danny Coltrane.

"Gator wrestling isn't hard to figure out," he says, grabbing his testicles. "It just takes these."

Jacqueline Carini

Coltrane grew up on Bird Road and discovered the Glades during camping expeditions with his woodsman stepfather, who poached gators every now and again, when they needed to "supplement the income." As a teenager, Coltrane recalls, he and his friends would head out to the swamp, get drunk, and "fuck with gators." What else was there to do?

He remembers sitting on the side of a lake and watching some poor Seminole father wade into the water, swim up under a gator, and roll with it until they couldn't fight any longer. After getting a grip on the animal, the man waded to shore, threw it over his shoulder, and took it home to feed his family.

"That was something to see," Coltrane says. "That was really fascinating."

Coltrane spent time in and out of jail and sometimes found himself in an airboat running down white-tailed deer to fill his stomach. He poached gators before he ever wrestled them, he says, and he got involved in tourism only to make money.

He arrived at Gator Park three years after Glenn Wilsey and immediately set up as the resident alligator wrestler. They dug him a sand pit and he went right to work, he says.

Coltrane paints Wilsey as a kind of obnoxious tag-along who rarely wrestled gators — though he admits Wilsey did save his thumb from being wrenched off during a bungled performance by leaping into the pit and covering the animal's eyes.

"He's a legend in his own mind," insists Coltrane, laughing. "I swim with alligators right back here in these swamps," he announces in a mocking tone, throwing his hands back as if casting away a long mane of hair. "Anybody can swim with alligators! My kids swim with alligators!" To Coltrane, Wilsey is a writer, living vicariously through other people's experiences.

Wilsey and Coltrane clashed at the attraction, particularly when it came to bragging rights — who was more genuine, who was more real.

Coltrane is surprisingly small for a gator wrestler — standing no taller than five feet seven inches. A ratty ponytail creeps from under his camouflage cap; his hair springs out in natty, sun-bleached strands; and a forked goatee juts out of his chin in a pair of wiry gray wisps. His arms, burnt a cherry red, are decorated with elaborate, fading tattoos. The right: a ghost orchid homage to his deceased wife, an exotic dancer named Sandy, who took her own life. The left: a troika of eagle feathers that stretch down to his elbow. His T-shirt reads, "Don't Make Me Violate My Parole."

Coltrane croaks and sways when he talks and is given to crackles of laughter. The lines along his face suggest he's been laughing for most of his life. His beady blue eyes shine with mischief; you are talking to a man who would happily hurl a muzzled alligator into your bed in the middle of the night just to see the look on your face.

After finishing a couple of Bud Lights on the porch, he stands up and heads toward the nearby trailer park where he has lived for 12 years. He lights a Backwoods Mild cigar as he walks.

Coltrane wrestles at Holiday Park two days a week, but he doubts the gig will last much longer. Extreme reality TV shows and the Internet have spoiled the attraction of gator wrestling. The tips have gotten worse with each passing year.

"This is a nice redneck community we got going here," he says, tossing up a hand like a carnival barker, as he approaches his trailer. "This is where we live," he announces. "There isn't any fame and fortune to it. It's just fame."

In November 2006, Wilsey was rescued from what he calls the "player haters" of Gator Park by the perennially friendly Gus "One Bear" Batista. Over the years, the Cuban-American schooled himself in the bizarre art of unfettered deep-water wrestling and fearless animal encounters (he got his nickname after being mauled by a black bear named Josh). His reputation preceded him in the small world of animal handlers. When he visited Wilsey at Gator Park, Batista says, he found the affable tour guide embroiled in an ongoing battle with the locals.

Sympathetic to Wilsey's situation, Batista recommended he take a position at the Billie Swamp and Safari near Clewiston. Wilsey seems at home here on the Seminole reservation.

But even in the fantastic Seminole wonderland, strife prevails. On a recent visit, park employees mutter suspicions that one of the animal handlers has released his co-worker's cherished falcon in an act of revenge. Every once in a while, Wilsey feels the wrath of colleagues as well — in the form of some well-placed blue cheese dressing or a barricaded bathroom door.

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