The Gator People!

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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."

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd