Tim Williams works with 800-lb. alligators every day, but the hardest part of his job is working with people.
“People get so caught up in emotion,” he says. “But alligators always think that life is good.” The gator expert is Gatorland’s dean of gator wrestling, coaching the newbies on how to clench a gator’s jaw and gently tickle its stomach. He often works 16-hour days at the “alligator capital of the world,” which is the oldest state park in Central Florida.
Inside its gaping gator mouth entrance, the wildlife preserve’s 110 acres are devoted to educational shows, train rides and a splash park, and zip lines gliding over gators and crocs. And although it’s less than 10 miles from SeaWorld Orlando, Williams prides Gatorland on the best compliment he’s ever received: “All the other parks around here run on electrical impulse, but [Gatorland] runs on a heartbeat.”
Title: Dean of Gator Wrestling and Director of Media Relations, Gatorland
Graduated from: University of Florida, degree in biology
In the business for: 37 years
Salary: Between $60,000 and $80,000. But I’d do this for free.
Previous jobs: Army ranger in Vietnam; rattlesnake venom extractor; police officer
Did you always know you wanted to work with alligators?I’ve always loved the outdoors. My dad had a radio show about fishing, and at one time, my mom was the longest continuous Girl Scout. She was a scout and/or a leader for 47 years.
How did that lead to gators? My hero growing up was alligator expert Ross Allen. After selling Ross some rattlesnakes – which were my first love, before gators – I started working for him at the Alligator Farm in Saint Augustine, doing venom extractions from the snakes. During one gator show, a guy broke his back, so I filled in for him.
Your college mascot also happened to be a gator. Yes, but [University of Florida] didn’t offer a major in gator wrestling, unfortunately.
Do you still wrestle gators on a regular basis? Not anymore. I’ve reached an age where I can get down on the alligators, but can’t get back up without help.
So what do you do now at Gatorland? I coach others how to wrestle gators, and I’m a mouthpiece for the company.
Working hours: It depends, but often 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. I help companies that come to film at Gatorland, like National Geographic, Discovery, and BBC.
Lead me through the process of getting atop a gator. I get into the water, take the gator by its tail, and pull it into the sand pit in the middle of the moat. After positioning the gator safely, I jump on and let my knees sit on the ground. Then I put my hands to its neck, catch its mouth shut, and show the crowd – usually 300 to 800 people – the gator’s nostrils, ears, teeth, jaw, and belly scales. Then I’ll roll it over, put it to sleep, and wake it up again by lightly tickling its belly.
What shocked you the most about gators? How strong they are for their size. A fully-grown gator is 13 to 14 feet and weighs 800 pounds.
Have you ever been bitten? I took a good bite when I was working at the Alligator Farm, which is why I then went to work for sheriff’s office full-time. But I kept wrestling gators, doing shows, and teaching alligator safety to paramedics. I enjoyed being police officer, but when I got a call from Gatorland to help out, I moved to Orlando and have been there since.
Best part of the job: Working with one of the most incredible animals on Earth. It’s the alpha predator out here.
Most challenging part of the job: Working with people. People get so caught up in emotion. Alligators – and most animals, for that matter – always think that life is good.
With SeaWorld nearby, does Gatorland attract big crowds? We don’t try to be Disney. Gatorland is the oldest park in Central Florida, and we get about 400,000 people per year. We even have zip lines that go over alligators and crocodiles!
How do you unwind after a long day with the gators? Sitting on the dock and watching the sunset with a good glass of scotch and a cigar.
Alligator’s coolest trick: They can hold their breath for longer than 12 hours when it gets cold outside; their heart rate and respiration slow down. It’s also cool to watch an 800-lb. alligator move through the water, with just the tip of its nose and eyes sticking up, without make a ripple in the water whatsoever.
How do alligators reproduce? They can be very romantic, rubbing their faces and noses together. But if the female doesn’t like the male, she’ll bite him and swim off. Once they’ve mated in the water, the female builds the nest on shore, lays 20 to 45 eggs, and covers them up. After 65 days, she bites the nest open and pulls the babies out with her mouth. Out of 40, usually only three survive.
For many, alligator wrestling is terrifying. What are you scared of? My ex-wife’s attorney.
Attire for wrestling gators: Jeans, a safari-looking tee shirt, and water shoes. Never wear shorts, since the alligator’s hide gets rough.
Most embarrassing moment at work: Back when I was single, I was trying to impress some girls at a show. As I stepped over the fence into the arena, the entire inseam of my pants ripped out, from zipper to belt. I didn’t have another pair, so I had to go into my office and staple them together.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
The dean of gator wrestling shares his life philosophies.
1. You need a love of the animal, and you must want to share that love with other people.
2. Be patient with your career goals. If everything happened overnight, everyone would be perfectly happy and doing exactly what they wanted to do.
3. The only way to get keys to open doors in life is through education and experience. It’s okay to go after the money, but if that’s your only driving force, you might end up disappointed.
Follow Gatorland on Twitter at @Gatorland and check out its Facebook page & tips on foursquare! All photos courtesy of Gatorland/Joanna Moore.
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