Longform

The Gator People!

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"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.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd