By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Overall, however, he seems at peace on the reservation.
Dressed in his usual attire, Wilsey saunters into the thatch-roof gift shop. His waistline is adorned with a large brass belt buckle impressed with the likeness of a man piloting an airboat. He extends his usual friendly hello and begins passionately describing his relationship with the animal world in his emphatic Ninja Turtle cadence.
He loves his new life at Billie Swamp and Safari, he explains. He and Susie Q share an RV in a park down the road, and he rides to work every morning on his ATV. She mostly knits and certifies people for concealed weapons permits.
He arrives each morning and immediately sets to work cleaning cages and feeding critters. These days Wilsey has been doing work in the reptile house, tending to a variety of venomous snakes. He pops into the hutch to check on a brood of baby water moccasins and to enjoy a blast of cool air.
He sets out walking between the elaborately landscaped pens of native tortoises and giant lizards. He stops, pointing a finger at each cage and offering a brief explanation of the animal's temperament and how apt it is to bite him.
Wilsey declines to gator wrestle. Last February, while he was playing around in the wrestling pen, a gator bit down hard on his index and middle fingers. One of his co-workers had to pry the creature's jaws apart so Wilsey could yank his digits off the roof of its mouth. Since then, he has been told not to wrestle.
"My boss is just watching out for me," he says. "I'm no spring chicken anymore." Shooting his eyes in either direction, he opens the door to the alligator pen and steps inside. A pair of short, languid gators lay idle on either side of the concrete wading pond at the center of the plant-lined pen. As Wilsey describes the various aspects of their built-in sonar detection mechanisms, he snaps off a palm frond and takes a poke at the motionless creature. The animal snaps, hisses, and lunges toward him. "They think I'm feeding them," he says, dropping the frond and holding up a pair of empty hands. The alligator advances toward him. "Boy, they must be hungry."
Wilsey begins backing out of the pen, when he is approached, from behind, by another alligator, whose mouth opens wide. Wilsey jumps, hopping between the gators, which chomp menacingly around his feet. A group of beefy men wanders up to the edge of the cage and marvels, in expletives, at Wilsey's predicament.
"Man," one of the men cries, slipping Wilsey a congratulatory high-five as he dashes out of the pit. "I'd never do that."
Wilsey beams and chuckles as he shuts the cage door behind him. "I'm gonna let someone know they need to feed these guys."
At 2:30, Wilsey performs a snake show for a group of school children. He displays Florida's four venomous natives on the small sawdust stage framed with camo netting and dead tree branches. "I want you to learn and remember what I tell you. I'm not gonna scare you, because I want you to remember everything I say."
At the end, Wilsey produces a muzzled baby alligator from an ammunition box and allows people to hold it up for photographs. The tourists giggle and shiver as the creature's rough, clammy skin settles against their palms.
Later he drives a handful of visitors along the well-trod loop through the hammocks of the Seminole back property. The area is a mishmash of Asian water buffalo, feral hogs, ibis, white-tailed deer, alligators, and American bison. Ostrich roam the property like dinosaurs, and somewhere in the wilderness lurks a Florida panther.
In the midst of a hardwood hammock, Wilsey stops at a life-size diorama of a Seminole chickee and explains each facet of the hut and its function. "We are in the Seminole States of America," he says from behind the wheel of the monster-truck buggy. "This is sovereign land."
At the end of the half-hour tour, a family from Georgia requests a photograph with him next to the buggy. He obliges with a broad smile and receives no tip for his trouble. Still, Wilsey seems more than content at having given "a good tour."
Gatorman's dreams all seem to come true at the park — where the unforbidding wilderness of the Everglades has been broken down into concentrated, easily digestible rides and displays. Thanks to Indian law, Wilsey is able to feed all the animals he wants; 2000 pounds of food is put out each day for the wild population. Part of the park's airboat loop involves throwing fistfuls of dog food to create an unlikely frenzy of birds, hogs, and alligators. The animals wallow together peacefully in their strange pseudo-domestication.
After work, Wilsey rides his ATV through the sparsely populated Seminole town — mostly small houses, interspersed with a brick government center and a school. There's a possibility, he says, they will be opening a pool hall and pizza place soon.
Wilsey returns home to Susie Q, who has been knitting a blue blanket for her grandniece. She chides him for his heavy schedule. Susie has never shared his interest in "animal stuff," but she has suffered through it for his sake.