The June afternoon is surprisingly cool at this secret location in the Everglades.
Rich moss and strange plants — strangler figs, palm apples — lace the ghostly gray trunks of cypress trees that stretch from the water to a dense green canopy. Below the high, clear waterline, weird fish dart among fallen branches — long, swordlike gars crisscrossing bright clusters of neon tetras. The midday sun casts shafts of bright light onto the silty, iodine-color bottom. Somewhere here, there are gators.
Glenn Wilsey and Gus Batista pull up to the scene and prepare to explore. Batista lashes a long diver's knife to his leg and swats at the gathering storm of insects. Wilsey begins assembling $5000 worth of underwater camera equipment. A visiting family from Collier County looks on, aghast, from the windows of a passing white Buick sedan. These men are going for a swim ... in there.
"What're y'all doing?" asks an older woman with a beehive hairdo.
Wilsey and Batista do not respond.
Wilsey steps off the main road, down into the culvert. Often clad in camouflage snake-proof boots and a leather hat studded with alligator teeth, he cuts an odd figure in a snorkel mask and fins. The 52-year-old, with shoulder-length silver hair and a bushy beard, stands over six feet tall. He is given to passionate outbursts often presented in a cuddly Southern California accent.
Batista is more subtle about the way he carries himself. Still, the Cuban-American gator wrestler looks somewhat like an old-timey circus strongman, handlebar mustache and all. His tremendous arms would lead you to believe he could throw a Fiat at you if he were mad enough. Scars mark his shins, hands, and head. A giant alligator tooth between a pair of bear claws hangs from his neck. He wears bike shorts and a large, blousy Indian shirt made of embroidered hunter's camouflage.
The water is cold and clean. The current from the culverts slowly pushes the men back into a clearing as they search for their favorite reptile. With the exception of nagging horseflies, skeeters, and the possibility of tripping on a snout and losing a limb, this is perhaps the best natural swimming spot in South Florida.
After 40 minutes of fruitless poking around, Wilsey prepares to give up. "I think someone else has been out here messing with these gators," he says, shrugging. He returns to his car to retrieve a soggy Subway sandwich. Birds gather around him. "I feel bad eating in front of any animal and not sharing," says Wilsey, dripping portions of his lunch onto the road and into the water. "It's good for them."
Just then he spots a five-and-a-half-foot female alligator slithering between a pair of cypress trees. Wilsey and Batista slide back into the water and spook it out of its hiding spot. "Grab a sandwich and start tossing pieces of it to the gator," he says. A New Times reporter ambivalently obliges. Gradually enticed toward Wilsey, the animal inhales bits of turkey, ham, and tomato with a lazy loosening of its jaws.
"It's okay, baby," coos Wilsey, holding a hand high out of the water. "It's all right, sweetheart."
The creature's flat, black head moves slowly toward them as she tries to discern whether Wilsey's head is something she can eat. This is Wilsey's moment to shine. He begins to raise its head out of the water, but the gator turns and swims away. "Darn it!" he spits, taking the camera from Batista. "It got scared."
Now it is the gator wrestler's turn.
Batista stands silently before the animal, holding his arms motionless underwater. The alligator follows the trail of sandwich bits like a reptilian Pac-Man. A tomato breaks the surface with a plop and hovers just at the tip of Batista's nose. When he and the giant reptile are face to face, he throws a hand in an uppercut motion under its jaw and wraps his legs around the bucking torso. The animal rolls, taking Batista under as they thrash in the shallows. All that can be seen is white flying water. Wilsey peers through his pricey yellow cylinder, filming intently.
Then everything goes calm.
Suddenly the animal's head breaks the surface. A massive hand is wrapped tightly around its snout and the loose yellow skin beneath its chin. Batista emerges, teeth bared, holding the beast up like it's some drunken pipsqueak. The massive jaws pop open, revealing the creature's deadly ivory teeth. Just then a humongous deer fly lands on Batista's head and bites tiny chunks out of his scalp as he struggles to maintain a steady grip. The gator emits a demonic hiss; with a sudden crack from her tail, Batista's head flies back. Her spiny scutes sever the membrane connecting his top lip to his front teeth. Blood pours from his mouth. He drops her like a sack of potatoes and walks back toward the shore.
Dripping blood, he grins into the camera. "It wasn't nothing," he says.
"Damn, dude," Wilsey hollers like a thrilled child. "This stuff keeps me young. That gator would've fucked you up."
In bygone days, these waters rippled under the footsteps of similarly odd men — men who lived in piss-caked pants, flat skiffs, and shotgun shacks. Their needs were simple then: moonshine, tobacco, lard, and .22-caliber bullets.
They were Gladesmen. They lived a spartan and wild existence within the beautiful and lawless expanse of swamp that has since been carved into one of the most heavily regulated and federally patrolled pieces of parkland in the nation. Some were adventurers from the Northeast. Others descended from Crackers who fled the onslaught of Reconstruction. They came to South Florida seeking a kind of frontier playground, and they found it in the swamp. The alligator was their livelihood.
Tail meat and back strap could be fried on camp stoves to provide enough sustenance to get the hides back to trading posts on the fringe of Miami.
From the very beginning, visiting Yankee travel writers, photographers, and sensationalists trumped up fantastic tales of their brushes with smoke-breathing monsters — giant, horrifically abundant lizards. But Gladesmen treated alligators like reptilian sheep.
"[The] studied indifference to the dangers of alligators undoubtedly stemmed from necessity," Florida International University professor Laura Ogden writes in her 1998 book, Gladesmen. "Alligator hunting was essential to the cultural fabric of the people who lived along the margins of the Everglades."
In the late Thirties, alligator hunting became regulated — banned in Dade County, mainly because of the animal's spectator draw. According to Ogden, the move was really about protecting them as "indicators of wildlife" — nature's tourist traps. Thus began the outlaw poaching culture.
The National Park Service began buying up the playground in the late Forties. Today the agency continues to jump at every opportunity to seal off the Everglades from the foolhardy, curious, and wild, by buying up the swamp one parcel at a time and confining airboat jockeys to a series of well-trod trails. (Complaints against the perfidy of the National Park Service are almost as common in the Glades as gripes about mosquitoes.)
The Gladesman has been forced to reinvent himself and his role in the alligator economy over and over again; he hasn't been able to even touch a wild alligator since the Seventies.
Shacks and hunting camps have given way to RVs; moonshine to bottled water. Rifles have become cameras. Trading posts are long gone; most of what's dragged out of the swamp today is sold on homemade DVDs or posted as grainy snippets on MySpace and YouTube.
The new breed of Gladesman makes a commodity of the gator's image instead of its hide. He guides tours rather than illicit hunting expeditions. He is an entertainer rather than a survivor. Perhaps the only trace left of the now-extinct strain of Miami-Dade County's prodigal forebear is his strange relationship with the American alligator.
Glenn "Gatorman" Wilsey might be the exemplar of this new batch — a man who looked into the pretty muck and found himself.
Glenn Wilsey was born August 28, 1954, in Canastota, New York, the youngest of three children. When Glenn was six months old, his father, a pool hustler named Wes, moved the family to the San Fernando Valley. According to his older sister, Judy, Glenn grew up all over L.A. The siblings were largely estranged from their father, who earned a living as a handyman and a commercial fisherman. "He was not a good man," she says of him. "He was not a good father."
When Wilsey was 11 years old, his mother met a man named Les McCallister, who leased a flea market at 77th Avenue and Bird Road. The couple moved to Miami, taking young Wilsey with them. They rented a second-floor apartment behind the Tropicaire drive-in theater. "They lived right behind the movie screen," recalls Wilsey's childhood friend Keith Price. Wilsey paints a slightly different picture, saying he grew up all over the western fringe of Miami, in places McCallister bought and sold, until they settled in a trailer park at 122nd Avenue and the Tamiami Trail, and that from age nine he spent his youth romping in the swamp.
As a 17-year-old high school sophomore, Wilsey joined the army during the height of the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Germany, where he whooped it up in beer halls, until he pissed off his commanding officer and got booted back to Florida.
He returned to Miami, married his middle school sweetheart, "Susie Q," and took a job as a truck driver. Wilsey spent most of his adult life working at a wheel and tire plant. His son, Glenn Jr., enjoyed a wild childhood in a trailer park on the western end of the Tamiami Trail — duking it out with the local boys on the front lawn, fishing in the Glades, and collecting snakes. When Glenn Jr. left high school at age 17, got his GED, and moved to Orlando, his father quit his day job and became reborn, in the weird womb of the Everglades tourist industry, as Gatorman.
In 1989 Wilsey took a job as an airboat tour guide at Coopertown, a former frogging encampment that had been providing airboat tours to curious travelers since 1945. Three years later Wilsey left Coopertown to work for Gator Park, another airboat tourist outpost, about 10 miles down the Tamiami Trail. "It was heaven there for me," Wilsey recalls. He and his wife started their lives over again right in the middle of the Glades, on a concrete plot adjoining the park. Susie Q took up working as an NRA firearms instructor at Trail Glades Gun Range.
The Wilseys occupied Gator Park's rear lot for more than 10 years. He worked hard to build his spot into a small paradise, erecting a winding deck, a pair of fire pits, and a dock over the water out back. From there it was open access to thousands of acres of Everglades; in the late summer the water came up to the edge of his front door. His enthusiasm overflowed.
The Everglades became Wilsey's full-time occupation. He joined the Airboat Association of Florida and began writing for its Website. He answered questions, told personal stories, and grappled with the wisdom of the National Park Service. "A lifetime of knowledge is worth as much or more than any college degree," he wrote in a posting titled Why I Do What I Do. "I live in the Everglades and I know my back yard better than any scientist, and my opinion is valid too."
Wilsey took on the role of an ambassador to the wilderness — a man intimately in touch with the swamp and one who revels in the experience of fearlessly swimming with alligators.
"It's almost erotic," he says.
On his MySpace page, the activity seems to define him. "I grew up in the Florida Everglades and learned to swim with wild alligators. I write about my life in the Everglades and why I swim with wild alligators."
Tourists loved Wilsey. He made them feel at home in the menacing mire. "You're safer walking through the Everglades for 30 days with no weapon than you are walking through any major city for one hour with a weapon," he would say to them from his elevated captain's chair.
Wilsey represented exactly the man they had traveled thousands of miles to see: a gentle American Crocodile Dundee — a genuine local, full of folksy wisdom and wonderful stories.
"Glenn was very knowledgeable about the Everglades," recalls his friend, Airboat Association president Keith Price. "When people called with questions, they would be directed to Gatorman [Wilsey], Gator John, and me, the Sawgrass Cowboy."
Before long, Wilsey was manufacturing his own DVD — Come Tour the Everglades with Gatorman and His Friends — and selling it online.
Wilsey would later have a falling out with the Airboat Association and be forced to enlist the help of an attorney to get his stories back for the purposes of his own Website, Airboats, Animals of Florida (aaof.us).
It's quitting time at Coopertown. The last tour boats have pulled into the dock at the tourist outpost, the oldest airboat service in the state. Mosquito-bitten fishermen are popping into the sagging restaurant and knickknack shop to pick up a cold one for the ride home.
The afternoon sun has fallen to a serene angle, bathing the gawky young boat drivers in tangerine light as they drain the day's cloudy water from a fish tank full of baby gators. The youths lug the foot-long reptiles toward a series of pens out back, where a half-dozen plump alligators await performances on sets of rap videos and potato chip commercials. Declining tour revenue has led Jesse Kennon, the 65-year-old "mayor" and owner of Coopertown, to supplement his income by renting out his facilities for television and commercial shoots.
"Glenn Wilsey?" says Kennon, grinning impassively at the mention of the name. "I got no use for him."
Like Wilsey, the old man came to the Glades as a young outsider, summering, he says, at his cousin John Cooper's place from his parents' farmhouse in Missouri. But even as a boy, Kennon says, he was earning money ferrying unsuspecting tourists into the grassy plains, pointing out alien plants and waters teeming with strange and terrible beasts.
Kennon says he holds dear memories of Cracker tour guides forced to give up poaching to work for tips. The first time he wrestled a gator, he says, was at the request of the world-famous Bobby Tiger, who pulled him aside and told him they could make a few dollars doing "stuff with gators" for a visiting film crew. "Everything I know I learned sitting around here listening to the old-timers," he says with stern pride.
In 1989 Wilsey, who would have been in his midthirties, showed up at Coopertown one day wanting to work as an airboat driver. "He didn't know anything back then," Kennon says, recalling the day he took Wilsey out and showed him how to operate the boat.
"I taught him everything he knows about driving airboats and the Glades," Kennon claims.
In 1992, according to Kennon, Wilsey left him for nearby Gator Park, with aspirations to work in management. "He took all the names of my tour operators and tour companies and handed them over to the boss over there," Kennon says.
Wilsey recalls their falling-out stemming from a disagreement over the age of an alligator, which played out in front of a pair of visiting college girls. "I called him a fool right then and there," he says. "Jesse didn't teach me anything about the Everglades," he adds. "He grew up in Missouri; I grew up right here in the Everglades."
Wilsey accuses Kennon of being the impostor, suggesting he got an offer to buy Coopertown while driving a truckload of tomatoes through Florida.
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."
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.
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.
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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.
They drink a few small glasses of Tequila Rose. Wilsey catches a toad, and they head off for the abandoned Billie Swamp and Safari. After leaving the toad in the care of a hungry water moccasin, Wilsey takes Susie's hand and begins strolling into the eastern end of the park. Susie chatters about their lifelong love affair as they wander along muddy dirt roads and up an artificial mound to a spot where the Seminoles have erected a new monument: a proud warrior surrounded by the seven animals of the various clans. All around them the heavily carved wetland shimmers in the starlight.
They sit under the full moon and wonder at what a terrific life they found in the swamp.