For generations, the Miccosukee Indians of Florida have handed down a tradition of alligator wrestling, but that may now have come to an end. According to the AFP, the tribe’s last alligator wrestler announced recently that he will be retiring from the trade, and there are no others in the tribe of 600 to take his place.
Forty-four-year-old Rocky Jim says he has been wrestling alligators for 31 years, but a recent accident that almost cost him his hand caused him to reconsider.
“I was just really waiting for the right time. I guess this was the right time,” he said.
The accident occurred on December 27 during one of Jim’s usual alligator demonstrations at the Miccosukee Indian Village outside of Miami. Jim was performing a routine in which he orders the alligator to open its mouth and then places his hand inside. During this show, however, Jim accidentally brushed one of the large reptile’s teeth during the movement, causing the animal to snap its mouth shut—with his hand still inside.
“If it shakes, my hand is going to go with it,” he told the AFP, referencing a behavior known as the “death roll.”
Most prey targeted by alligators can be swallowed in one bite, but larger animals must be ripped apart before being consumed. Alligators achieve this by biting an appendage and then spinning around until the body part is removed. This terrifying act had cost some alligator handlers their hands before, and Jim feared it was his turn. Luckily, he and a helper were able to calm the alligator down and pry open its jaws without incident. Jim kept his hand, but he was left with seven deep puncture wounds where the alligator’s teeth sunk into his flesh.
He decided to quit after that. Jim is unsure about letting the tradition die and hinted that he may teach his 13-year-old son the art of alligator wrestling when he is old enough.
Alligator wrestling has been a tradition in the Miccosukee tribe, and some other tribes such as the Seminole, for a very long time. Around the turn of the twentieth century, alligator wrestlers started displaying their skills in public shows as a means of generating additional income. At one time, alligator wrestling drew in bustling crowds of tourists, but many now say the industry is dying.
“A lot of places still keep gators on display, but the number of live shows is in decline,” James Peacock, wildlife manager at Seminole Native Village, told the Sun Sentinel. “With the birth of the Internet, people don’t need to come to a park and pay an entrance fee when they can go online and see 30 alligator-wrestling shows today.”
There are few traditional alligator wrestlers left. This is due in part to greater concern over the safety of the handlers, criticism from animal rights groups, and in some cases, a lack of interest from the next generation. Jim says that he intends on teaching his son his own skills, but has no plans for encouraging it as a career.
You can see Rocky Jim display his skills in a past show in the video below: