The Gator People!

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.

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.

The first time I set eyes on Freer, he was holding a bucket of hybrid striped bass and moving with balletic grace through a herd of some of the biggest alligators I'd ever seen, tossing fish into their hissing maws as they came at him from all sides. There aren't many sounds as terrifying as a gator's hiss. Think of the roar of a furnace about to pop its rivets or a volcano's rumble a moment before it boils over. Now pair that sound with a 12-foot gator's wide-open jaw, the deathly pallor of a pulsating hole ringed by a picket fence of saurian teeth, and you start to get an idea of what it must feel like to be on the receiving end of a predator's appetite. Yet Freer had shown no more emotion than alert wariness.

That same day, I'd also watched as Freer beat back a wild Glades gator who'd been drawn by the smell of the fish. The immense gator had slid over the chainlink fence separating the farm from wilderness, agile as a gymnast, and Freer had gone straight at it with a stick while a group of visitors, including me, shrieked from the higher reaches of what suddenly seemed like a very dinky set of bleachers. That gargantuan gator had turned tail with a speed I'd never imagined, racing back under the fence as if it were pursued by the monster.

So gators could run 30 miles an hour. They could scale a fence.

Rivera is nearly Freer's opposite, lithe and delicate, with a perfectly heart-shaped face under glossy dark hair and skin as smooth and unmarked as cocoa-colored silk. Even dressed in a tank top and shorts, she's got a bit of showgirl in her: Her eyelids are painted with a swipe of silver glitter. She looks impossibly young and small to be a gator handler.

Standing by the fence where Rivera gives gator-handling demonstrations, Freer tells her to go ahead and bring Rusty out. The girl grabs her charge by the tail, dragging Rusty backward around the man-made pond, angling her into position. Rusty splays her feet, making herself heavy, scrabbling to grab hold of the shifting sand.

Rivera climbs onto her back and holds her neck from behind. Then she waits, feeling the gator's muscles relax. When Rusty's good and docile, Rivera puts her palm over the gator's eyes, lulling her further. Once the beast is as compliant as she's going to get, Rivera lifts her snout. She places the tip of her elfin chin just above the gator's upper jaw, below the nostrils. Rusty's mouth drops open. Balanced with the concentration of an acrobat, Rivera spreads her arms in a T: an angel astride Leviathan.

She has Rusty in the classic "Face Off" pose, a pas de deux with an animal that possesses the most powerful bite in the animal kingdom, 2,000 pounds of pressure and a jaw impossible for even the strongest man to open once it's fastened on something. When an alligator snaps its jaw shut at full force, it makes a crack as loud as a rifle shot, a sound that reverberates through the Glades, startling birds into flight.

Rivera holds for a minute, the seconds ticking by in slow motion. Then she lifts her chin gracefully, and the gator's head sinks to the ground.

Freer has taught his pupil the showman's patter — the force of an alligator bite, the number of teeth (about 80), the ways to avoid an alligator attack (never feed a wild gator). Rivera has another friend, Godzilla, who alternates shows with Rusty. Godzilla is considerably bigger at eight feet, heavier at 220 pounds, and much, much meaner. What Rivera does with these two gators she wouldn't call "wrestling," and neither would Freer. The show she puts on for French Canadian and New Jersey tourists twice a day (plus two gator feedings and two snake shows) bears a strong resemblance to the stunts people have been performing at Florida's roadside attractions since Ford introduced the Model T. They include many of the same tricks: "the Florida smile," "Bulldogging," and the "Face Off."

Through countless trips into the Glades with Freer over the eight years since she came to him as a volunteer, when she was just 14, Rivera has learned how to come up softly behind a wild alligator so as not to spook it with sudden noises, excess vibration, or sharp movements. She'll tell you gators are often as shy and retiring as they are fierce. And, she says, "They're basically pretty lazy."

"Lazy," in fact, is what Freer named the 26-year-old gator who lived in his living room for some years. "They make about as good of pets as snakes," he says. "A gator will come over and lay down next to you and open his mouth to tell you to feed him. But they all have different personalities. Some are really ornery." Still, he says, "an alligator in the wild can survive by eating as little as a single duck a year. He doesn't much want to eat you. In fact, kids around here have always gone swimming in lakes and streams. They just knew better than to swim at night when the gators are hunting."

Is Rivera ever afraid? She considers. "No. I'm not really afraid of alligators. But I'm scared to death of frogs." Freer once set up an aquarium full of frogs next to her desk, she says, in hopes she'd get over her phobia. No dice. "I cried every single day as long as those frogs were there."

I ask if I can come close and touch Rusty. Rivera nods, shifting her grip. "She can only see sideways, so come up a little from behind."

Rusty's skin feels cool and pliant, a little spongy, but not scaly or slimy. She seems illusively damp — she's not actually wet at all — and smells brackish and clean, of the swamp. Only the "scutes" on her back, the ridges of bone sometimes called "hornback," feel hard — but these are pliable too; they wobble under your fingers. A triumph of textures and color, the gator's hide is a gorgeous and intricate weave of creams and smokes and blush-pinks on her smooth belly and a moonscape of rougher, rocky, gray-browns on her back and tail. The skin around her mouth is acutely sensitive to vibration.

It's that variety of texture, of delicacy and pliability, that has made the Florida alligator's skin so valuable on the world market. By 1902, 60,600 gator skins were trafficked annually in Florida, selling for about ten cents a foot. By the 1960s, so many gators had been taken in Florida that the population was endangered. Today, Florida produces around 46,000 gator skins a year, along with 624,000 pounds of meat, from farms and wild harvest. The skins sell for about $25 a foot, although prices fluctuate from year to year, and the meat for about $5 a pound. Annual revenue from farmed meat and hides has risen to about $6 million since Florida alligator farming became legal in 1986, and total gator revenue (not including tourism, licenses, and permit fees) has peaked at almost $16 million. Because Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana hide market hard, wiping out farms and scattering gators into the wild, the sale of Florida skins in 2006 and 2007 has been especially brisk.

Rivera points out the flaps of flesh covering the alligator's ears and her third eyelid, the clear nictitating membrane; it slides sensuously across the alligator's pupil, like a transparent veil being drawn across a window. The alligator shares this membrane with chickens and sharks (we have a vestigial remnant of pinkish flesh in our own eyes' inner corner). The gator's eye is the color and shape of a sun-ripened olive, now gold, now green. Up close, it's patterned abstractly, like a leaf seen under a microscope. Rusty has a valve at the back of her throat that she can close to keep from drowning even while she drowns her prey; she can seal her nostrils by contracting her nasal muscles. When she dives, the valves and flaps make her water-tight. She's perfectly self-contained.

All animals, philosopher John Berger has written, share elemental qualities of existence. We are born into the world, gator and human alike. We hear, we smell, we feel the warmth of sunlight on skin. We mate and raise our young, and at length we die. The pattern connects all creatures, including those we perceive as strange, as irredeemably Other. Looking at Rusty up close, it's clear why her kin were hunted almost to extinction — a pretty, pliant, valuable hide married to a face familiar only in nightmares; 40 pairs of hollow, conical teeth; the classically alien eye with its slit pupil, an eye that neither recognizes you nor returns your gaze. She's an animal to inspire awe, fear, repulsion. Unless you're one of the Gator People, she's a hard beast to love.

When South Florida was first settled, explorers and amateur naturalists reported herds of alligators wallowing belly to back in swamps as far as the eye could see, a roiling mass of what would become some of the most prized hides in the world. One of the first written accounts comes from American naturalist William Bartram, who describes in his 1794 tale of a boating trip "a huge alligator emerging upright on my lee quarter, belching water and smoke that fell upon me like a hurricane." Bartram fancifully writes of gators packed so densely that a person could walk on their backs as if on dry land. Settlers and travelers who first crisscrossed Florida said Seminoles and Miccosukee people swam, bathed, and played in waters infested with Alligator mississippiensis; Indians later made a living "wrestling" them for tourists. We have post cards from the turn of the century showing people riding gators using homemade bridles (or in one photo, a pair of gators hooked to a plow). Intrepid boys used to wade into the Glades to catch baby alligators by hand, stuffing as many as they could carry inside their shirts.

The Glades may not have been settled at all without the gators' help. Gator nests eventually became hummocks of dry land attractive to willow, bay, myrtle, and rubber trees, turning the River of Grass into something approaching habitable. Environmentalists know gators are crucial in the kinds of drought we had in South Florida in 2007 — they dig deep holes, as wide as 20 feet across, making watery refuges for fish, birds, and frogs to survive a dry spell. A gator makes a good bodyguard for birds, its very presence protecting eggs from raiding coons. And scientists are learning that the gator's immune system is one of the strongest in the animal kingdom, able to fight off a range of bacteria and viruses from E. coli to HIV. Environmentalists discover in the Florida alligator an almost perfect natural petri dish for environmental toxins, mercury, and manufactured estrogens.

The Florida alligator is still ideally adapted to its environment. Today, the ratio of wild gators to humans in Florida is about 1 to 20. We live with about a million of these animals. They long preceded us; cousins to dinosaurs, they're members of a dynasty stretching back 200 million years (upstart Homo sapiens, by comparison, are a mere 200,000 years old). Homeowners in South Florida, an equally adaptable species, have learned to construct fences around neighborhoods to keep el lagarto, as the Spaniards called him, out of their backyards.

Last year, three women were killed by alligators in Florida between May 10 and 16: a snorkeler in Marion County, a Pinellas woman, and a student on a jogging path in Broward County. The media coverage and public outcry had representatives in Tallahassee and officials at the Florida Wildlife Commission scrambling. Yet since the mid-1940s, just 20 people have been fatally attacked by alligators in Florida. Most fatalities occur during summer's mating and nesting season. Compared to the thousands of alligators killed by humans, two or three fatal attacks annually, tragic as they are, don't seem like reason to panic.

The roaring Leviathan people envision when they think of the Florida alligator — the monster able to run 30 miles an hour, scramble over six-foot reinforced chainlink fences, and jump five feet in the air to snag a dangled chicken carcass; the predator who gobbles poodles the way the rest of us eat popcorn — is real. But so is the animal that slides quietly away when approached by people: a shy, slow, cold-blooded beast that eats once every couple of months or so, an animal that wants to build its nests and raise its young in peace. The alligator wants no truck with humans. It watched the dinosaur come and go. It's not impossible to imagine it will outlive us too.

Lindsey Hord is the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Coordinator for the Florida Wildlife Commission, among other titles; one of his jobs is to oversee the legal trapping of 12,000 or so nuisance gators annually. "We have 300 drowning deaths in Florida every year," he explains, patiently reciting a comparative statistic he has well memorized. "More people in this state are killed by vending machines than by alligators."

If deadly or dangerous human-alligator interactions are increasing, Hord argues, it's because the human population in Florida is expanding, gobbling up land for development at the edges of the gator's age-old habitat. Unlike the human population, alligator numbers in Florida have remained stable for a decade.

As communities spring up on the western boundaries of South Florida counties, alligators move east. Ironically, our communities are simultaneously creating habitats the gators find delicious, with retention ponds, golf course water traps, decorative fountains, backyard canals banked by soft grass, and a plentiful supply of unwary household pets.

Alligator mississippiensis, almost wiped out thanks to the hide industry by the 1960s, has rebounded so avidly that it was removed from the Federal Endangered Species List in 1977 (these days, the alligator is classified as a "species of special concern"). Florida alligator management has taken aggressive steps to regulate gator hunting, farming, and nuisance control. The programs are touted as one of the most successful wildlife management programs in U.S. history. "We've had some degradation of habitat and loss of habitat, of course," Hord says. "But we've been monitoring the population of alligators here very closely. Alligators are a tolerant, adaptable animal. And we have a tremendous amount of public land in Florida that's safe for alligators. Our hunting programs are sustainable programs."

In her 1991 essay about alligators, "The Eyelids of Morning," naturalist and poet Diane Ackerman speculated that wildlife conservation programs like the one in Florida are at root a kind of talisman — less a realistic necessity than a brand of magic to ward off the evil eye of a beast whose long claws dig into our deepest fears. But the Florida gator conservation agenda, on a practical level, appears to be working, creating an elegant loop in which wild eggs collected from nests hatch out and stock farms, hunting licenses are restricted, and the regulation of hide and meat sales is a burdensome program of paperwork and tags. The illegal meat trade and most poaching in this environment becomes difficult.

"The poaching we're seeing has really changed over the years," says Steve Steigler, of the state's Alligator Management Program. "Now, people are poaching for tail meat and trophy heads, stuff for their personal use. And they're poaching eggs; we find nests that have been emptied every year when we go out. But there's no value in a poached hide. They're just too difficult to sell."

So the native population of gators thrives, at least in moderation: no longer endangered and not particularly dangerous — unless you get too close.

At Everglades Alligator Farm, Rusty's animal magnetism draws a parade of tourists deep into the Glades, keeping the farm from sinking into financial mire. This farm, along with Bob Freer's Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue, down the road, is the central hub of South Florida's gatormania, a hybrid tourist attraction, educational facility, and gator-growing business where Jeanette Rivera and a dozen other staffers raise eggs and hatchlings to sell to farms or lend to schools and universities for research. Fifty-odd gator farms like this one operate in the state. Some, like Patty and Allen Register's Gatorama in Palmdale near Lake Okeechobee, raise gators from pampered, palm-sized pups in lightless, homemade grow-out pens, where they're kept quiet and fed on a fancy mix of vitamins, grains, and chicken to make their skins extra supple. Once they reach four or five feet in length, they're harvested for meat and skins. Patty sells the steaks on the internet, and Allen trucks the hides off to a tannery in Sebring. Other farmers work as meat-processing facilities for gator nuisance trappers, who get to keep any earnings from the Fido-munching monsters hauled out of backyard canals. Everglades Alligator Farm takes an approach less likely to raise the hackles of lizard lovers, partly because Bob Freer is a committed animal ecologist, partly because an ex-schoolteacher and her husband own the place.

Deborah Thibos looks and talks like the elementary schoolmarm she was when she moved to Florida with her husband, Charles, to become an alligator farmer. The Thiboses, Deborah admits, "knew nothing about animals" when they bought the business in 1991. "This was my husband's third midlife crisis," she says. When Charles Thibos visited a gator attraction with his son during a trip to Florida, he inexplicably fell in love with the gnarly creatures. At home, he lobbied Deborah to buy Everglades Alligator Farm, which happened to be for sale. "I was totally against it," Deborah says. "I told him he was insane." Today, they own 2,000 gators, assorted native crocs, shelves and shelves of snakes in glass aquariums ("but no venomous snakes — I won't allow it," Deborah says), turtles, tree frogs, and dozens of other critters.

"This place was a mess when we bought it... or maybe I should just say it was very, very primitive," Deborah says. "The people who worked here were living in buses and trailers. And then a year after we moved here, we were hit by Hurricane Andrew, and every structure we had was destroyed."

Freer "just drove up one day and said he owned alligators and knew how to handle them, and he was interested in working for us," Deborah says. She credits him with saving the farm after Andrew. Freer helped the Thiboses rebuild from scratch, putting in 18-hour days.

"I wasn't so sure about Bob at first," she says. "He's a little crazy. I'm a schoolteacher and guidance counselor, so my main issue is safety. Bob doesn't always see eye-to-eye with me, and we've had our conflicts. But Bob's taught me just about everything I know about reptiles."

You could say Freer's wife, Barbara Tansey, had a few hesitations about him too. She lived with the man for 23 years before she reluctantly agreed to marry him. Freer and Tansey founded the nonprofit Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue about a mile up the road from Everglades Alligator Farm. Once nothing but flat farmland and scrub, today the Rescue is a jungle housing three tigers, a crippled lion, a buffalo, a black bear, and a pair of wolves, among other abandoned, hurt, or confiscated creatures — wild animals removed from private homes by the county or beasts dropped off by owners whose exotic pets got bigger and meaner than they were comfortable with.

Tansey has long since learned to put up with baby gators in the toilet and pygmy rattlers tucked into water bottles: As fearless as Freer, she's had even worse scrapes with animals. A raccoon bit off her upper lip (it was surgically repaired); a bear took her middle left finger (that one couldn't be fixed: The bear had swallowed it). "She jokes that she gets a discount on her manicures," Freer says.

When Jeanette Rivera stumbled into Everglades Outpost looking for volunteer work, she knew she wanted to work with animals. She pestered Freer for years to give her a full-time, paying job, demonstrating considerable derring-do by bottle-feeding baby tigers, putting down mulch, hauling garbage, and swabbing out birdcages. She trained bears. A parrot fell madly in love with her. A baby baboon named Timmy "was stuck on me and wouldn't let go. He'd bite other people if they tried to touch him." She became the only human an old, sick arctic wolf would allow near.

Freer was adamant: Finish school first; then we'll talk. "This is a great life, but you sure don't do it for the money," he says. "Jeanette might want the choice to do something else."

Rivera finished vocational school last year. Then she pestered Freer some more. Now she works more than 30 hours a week at the Farm and another 30 or so at a night job at Miami Emergency & Critical Care for Animals.

Ever enthusiastic in their defense of responsible alligator management, the grizzled man and the young lady work as a team, traveling to lecture on Everglades wildlife, gator biology and ecology, and the problems inherent in the exotic pet trade.

"Wild animals should not be kept as pets," Rivera says. "They end up in places like the Outpost, and a lot of times, Bob has to spend his own money to feed them. Seeing it, your heart gets broken a lot."

So, apparently, do your fingers and toes. But, Freer tells anyone who'll listen, "the danger of alligators is highly overrated. Yes, they have killed people — but they should still be treated humanely. You want to talk about a problem in the Everglades? It's not gators; it's pythons. That's the issue people should be holding meetings about."

Freer's got his share of scars to show the wide-eyed kids he lectures. A crocodile once broke his arm; an alligator bit deeply enough to cause a painful infection. "The worst pain I've ever been in was from what they did to me at the hospital," he jokes. Like other Gator People, he takes full blame for mishaps. "It wasn't the gator's fault," goes the constant refrain among the Clan of the Nine Fingers. "I made a mistake."

As if she's inherited Freer's risk-taking gene, Rivera hoists herself up on a six-foot stand in the middle of a writhing gray sea of gators at Everglades Alligator Farm while Freer talks to visitors. She dangles a fish, teasing, as a gator twice her size rumbles just out of reach. Above the hisses and guttural grumbling of the herd, Freer explains that the gators have a fat problem as bad as the average burger-chomping American.

Still, our fear of a voracious beast that hunts at night, grabbing us in its razor-lined jaws and pulling us under in a thrashing vortex of black water, is a primal one. Images of fire-breathing dragons are cross-cultural; they may have spread into medieval Europe via tales and paintings of the Chinese alligator. Historians suggest that the biblical Leviathan was based on a crocodilian.

The hideous and implacable sea monster described in the Book of Job becomes a foil for the hubris of mankind. Men, in their weakness, can do nothing to subdue the Leviathan, with his "terrible" teeth and "scales shut up together as with a close seal." Against this Godzilla, their weapons are pathetic: "The arrow cannot make him flee: slingstones are turned with him into stubble... He maketh the deep to boil like a pot... He is a king over all the children of pride." Only God can slay the Leviathan, and when he does, he'll construct canopies from the monster's "beautiful skin" to "shelter the righteous," who will feast on his meat at a banquet with great joy and merriment.

Bob Freer and his wife like to spend cozy evenings watching TV with a couple of Florida bobcats curled at their feet. Their house, once the Outpost's gift shop and commissary, is crammed with gatorabilia: antique gator-hide purses, a gator-skin vest, the carved crocodile prow of an African canoe, Florida photographs, cabinets dense with vintage alligator post cards, gator-skin briefcases, and antique baby gators mounted and dressed in full costume as a ship's captain, a pirate, and a colonial soldier. It's like looking at one of those puzzles in which shapes hidden in a pattern become gradually visible. You don't realize until you've stood in their living room a while that there are gators everywhere.

For Gator People, such is domestic bliss.

To keep the adrenaline flowing, Freer hauls two hot-air balloon baskets hooked to the back of his camouflage-splotched van. Ballooning once with just a propane canister strapped to his back, his balloon burst a seam and started to spiral at 1,000 feet — what folks in the balloon world call a "terminal descent."

"I looked down," Freer says, "and I swear I couldn't see anything but crisscrossing power lines underneath me. And I've got a ten-gallon propane bomb on my back. I thought, 'OK, I'm dead.' But something happened, and I just relaxed. 'Enjoy the ride,' I said to myself. I landed in the middle of a giant oak tree — the only big oak tree anywhere for miles. Every branch I hit broke my fall until finally I was just swinging from one of the bottom limbs. I looked down, and people were on the ground with their cameras taking pictures."

A building housing a laundry business was under the tree. Freer's balloon settled on its roof. "I always thought it was funny the sign on that building. I could just read the part that said 'ironed and folded.' "

Freer didn't stay ironed and folded long. During a mud-hole wrestle with a feisty, full-grown bull gator who'd run amok at Parrot Jungle, Freer emerged after many 360-degree rolls with both the gator and a serious infection that required permanent tubes in his ears. But he still hears the call of the wild, and his empathy for creatures in need is pitch-perfect. He accumulates humans the way he collects other animals and garage-sale alligator belts. For 14-year-old Jeanette Rivera, meeting Freer was a fantasy come true: an adventure-loving father figure complete with his own zoo. "Bob is my second family," she says simply.

There's always someone camped on Freer's couch, Deborah Thibos says, "some kid who's been kicked out by his parents or somebody out of work with no place to go. He takes in anybody who's at a crossroads."

He's a real alligator person. He communes with big reptiles as symbiotically as a human can. He wrestles them and pets them in his living room, yet he respects their otherness. He lives deep in a swamp, where he's been lured by the pattern that connects all creatures. And if he has to stitch it himself, he will.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd