Wrangler May Have Met His Match in Reggie
By his own account, the number of alligators Tim Williams has wrestled in the last 30 years numbers somewhere in the thousands.
And by his own account, he never loses.
As if for proof, he did a mock body check and declared in his soft Florida drawl: “I still have all my arms and legs.”
But late last week, gazing for what must have been the thousandth time across the placid water of Lake Machado in Harbor City, he crossed his arms in frustration and admitted he might finally have met his match.
“This could be the one who got away,” he mused. Then he winked. “At least for now.”
Given his cherubic face, slight paunch and gentle demeanor, you’d have a hard time guessing that Williams is the “dean of gator wrestling” at Gatorland in Orlando, Fla., which bills itself as the alligator capital of the world.
After hearing that someone had illegally dumped a 7-foot alligator in Lake Machado, Williams volunteered to find and capture the stray saurian at no cost. His effort proved unsuccessful through Friday, when he returned home to attend to business commitments.
Gator wrestling sounds like an ego sport. But anyone hanging around with Williams for a while quickly discovers he’s less interested in vanquishing giant lizards than in educating his audience.
Gator facts pop out of his mouth unbidden: They have 82 teeth, their bite can exert 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, they can live to be 50 or 60 years old. And they’re smarter than people gazing at their warty exteriors think.
“Some gators in captivity know their name, just like a dog,” he said.
Williams is unfailingly polite, even when asked the inevitable silly question: Do you eat alligator meat? “Yes, I do,” he answers evenly. “It’s a very good, nutritious meat. It tastes like chicken.” But here’s the kicker: He has never killed an alligator. He has never had to, and besides, “I respect them too much.”
The 55-year-old native of Florida, where alligators seem as common as possums do here, came to alligator wrestling by way of a childhood fascination with snakes.
“I’m a real snake lover and always have been,” he said.
In his younger years he would catch rattlesnakes and sell them. In 1972, after returning from a tour of duty with the Army in Vietnam, he was peddling a few rattlers to Ross Allen, a well-known alligator wrestler based in St. Augustine, Fla. Allen, impressed by his snake handling ability, offered him a job on the spot.
“Ross was the best alligator wrestler around,” Williams said. “He didn’t have a big ego about it. He died years ago, but he always said something that I believe to this day: ‘The star of the show is not you. It’s the animal.’ ”
After Allen died, Williams worked as a law enforcement officer in Florida for a few years but continued to do alligator shows.
“I gave up police work because I wanted to do what I really loved,” he said. “I couldn’t believe someone was paying me to do it.”
He has done shows since 1991 at Gatorland, a 110-acre theme park where more than 1,300 alligators frolic and pose. Recently he has spent most of his time training wrestlers and handling dozens of photo shoots done there every year.
Brute strength isn’t as important to gator wrestling as people think, he confided: “It’s a lot of technique.” There’s a safety zone around the gator’s shoulders that wranglers can grab as the animal paws helplessly.
While the wrestler -- sometimes a woman -- dodges and parries, the creature thrashes, growls and snaps its jaws. Eventually the wrestler straddles the animal’s back and does the piece de resistance: opening the animal’s jaws to display the sharp, menacing teeth.
At Gatorland, the wrestlers nonchalantly crack jokes and rattle off alligator facts to the crowd. “Our whole purpose is to educate people,” Williams said. “One of the quickest ways to lose your job is to intentionally hurt, or appear to hurt, a gator.”
The one thing wrestlers can count on is getting bitten now and then. Williams said such bites are usually nothing more than nips because wrestlers know how to avoid direct hits. But he has a memento of one encounter when a gator was too quick for him: a thick, jagged scar spanning his right palm where the animal bit completely through the flesh.
“If you race cars, you’re going to have a wreck,” he said. “If you’re a carpenter, you’re going to hit your thumb.”
In Florida, Williams and other wrestlers leave the capture of nuisance alligators to state-licensed trappers, who generally kill their quarry. But he occasionally gets called to snare wayward ones, such as Lake Machado’s Reggie, who have not attacked people or pets.
One of his capture techniques is what he calls “my sexiest gator call” -- a series of grunts that sounds like a seal barking, a couple of octaves below normal. But it has proved fruitless with Reggie, whose story has made national and international news.
“Of all the things I’ve done in my career, I’ve never seen this much media attention on a gator capture,” he said before packing up and going home with other Gatorland wrestlers who had aided the search.
At his shoreline command post, consisting of a folding table that held two lariats, dozens of sodas on ice and a large box of bug repellent, he said Reggie’s biggest talent was remaining well hidden.
“If you know how to do it, usually it’s not hard to catch an alligator. But this guy has proven to be the exception to the rule. We’ve got to see him before we can catch him, and we haven’t seen him,” Williams said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Name: Tim Williams
Occupation: gator wrestler
Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.
Height: 6 feet
Family: eight children, including six adopted
Marital status: “single and available”
Pets: two bloodhounds, Moonshine and Red, and a big black cat named Bubba
Favorite activities, besides gator wrangling: kayaking and scuba diving