The Gator People!

Strange creatures haunt the Everglades. And that's just the humans.

In the 1959 movie Alligator People, set in an unnamed Southern wetland that will look familiar to South Floridians, Mrs. Webster, a newlywed, loses her husband. But he's not gone. Mad scientists have turned handsome Paul Webster into a mutant alligator that slithers through swamps, wreaking B-movie havoc. It's the stuff of cheap melodrama — with one caveat:

Alligator people really do inhabit our swamps. They speak gator language, swap gator tales, and collect gator memorabilia. They cook gator chili and barbecue gator ribs. And they keep gators, enormous scaled pets with names such as Rusty, Godzilla, and Rambo, with whom they've developed a deep-swamp symbiosis.

Jeanette Rivera, no 98-pound weakling.
C. STILES
Jeanette Rivera, no 98-pound weakling.

To get close to the people who get extra-cozy with alligators, you must follow a route that takes you far from the urban jungle to places whose names on maps are almost too small to read: Palmdale, Clewiston, Florida City. They're places that might not have an emergency room or a pharmacy within a 40-mile drive; so if you're in a hurry to see a doctor — if, say, you're keeping your severed fingertip on ice while your spouse careens down the highway toward the nearest hospital, in Lake Placid — you'll still have plenty of time to contemplate the miracles of modern surgery and the souvenir you'll earn. A guy like Palmdale gator farmer Allan Register, who lost a middle digit to an irritable crocodile, presents his four-fingered hand with an expression part embarrassed and part proud. You can often spot a member of the Gator People by counting their scars and chewed extremities. You know you're heading in the right direction when you can hear the hum of tall tales being told and of harrowing scrapes with old Dr. Death.

The route to Florida City, south of Homestead, is a network of gradually diminishing access as six lanes of turnpike narrow and the scrub and saw grass close in. You approach the southeastern tip of the Everglades, the southernmost point in the continental United States, not counting islands. When the Model Land Co. of Chicago, a division of Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway, bought 22,000 acres here a century ago, it was all but impossible to say where the continent ended and the islands began; the only bit of dry land was a limestone ridge that ran from Miami Beach into the Glades. If the landscape and climate were inhospitable, that didn't stop the Yankee families who came here in 1910 hoping to reclaim marshland. Model Co. salesmen touted this as a veritable Garden of Eden. The city people who settled here named it New Detroit. No matter what you called it, it was a tough place to make a life.

Today, at the corner of SW 344th Street, you'll find the Robert Is Here tropical fruit stand, which for 38 years has been selling locally grown cucumbers and collards so big and green that they look half-sentient. You're in farm country. Tomatoes, squash, green peppers, onions, cucumbers, navel oranges, and grapefruit flourish here, as do the more exotic fruits, tamarind and mamey, sapodilla and passion fruit. Then, at a four-way stop, the farmland ends and takes civilization with it. The paved road narrows again, to one lane framed by tree-high cane grass. When that road dead-ends, there's just one place left to go. Now you're in the parking lot of Everglades Alligator Farm.

You're here to see a 98-pound girl wrestle a seven-foot alligator.

The alligator is named Rusty. The girl is Jeanette Rivera. It's hard to guess whether this is a fair fight. Rusty is 8 years old, and Rivera is 22; Rusty is about seven feet from nose to tail, and Rivera stands five-foot-three. Rusty outweighs the girl by 20 pounds or so.

Bob Freer is the alligator farm's 56-year-old curator, gator handler, fence builder, tree planter, and general factotum. It's Freer who's teaching this tiny girl how to mess around with a seven-foot gator for the benefit of tourists. Freer, who's been coaching her for a couple of months now, seems like the ideal guy to teach gator handling. He cared for his first gator when he was 6 and living on his parents' farm in upstate New York, he says.

"We went on vacation to Florida, and my dad stopped at a gas station and went inside," Freer recalls. "When he came out, he handed me a baby alligator. He told me it was free with the tank of gas."

Freer raised that gator and eventually lots of others in a pond on his family's farm.

"In winter, I'd drag them into the barn to keep them warm. Some of them followed me around like puppies.

"When I finally left home, I said to my dad, 'I'll bet I get a job where I don't have to work seven days a week.' Now here I am, working 24 hours of all those seven days."

Standing six feet and barrel-chested, with his thick neck and broad forearms, his gray hair receding in a perfect V from a tanned forehead, Freer looks like a guy who's no stranger to taking risks. His green-gold eyes, uncannily close to the color of gators' eyes, are surrounded by deep laugh lines. He has a mustache that verges on a swooping, old-fashioned handlebar. He wears a crumpled, sweat-stained hat that does dual duty, keeping him from blistering when it's on his head and as a tool to startle back animals when he whips it off. Its battered brown brim has saved him from feisty ostriches, irritable big cats, and man-sized baboons.

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