AFP

MIAMI

On billboards across the Florida Everglades, a burly Native American man pries open an alligator’s mouth, pressing his face dangerously close to the reptile’s 80 glinting teeth. “Adventures Await,” the ads promise, as motorists whiz by.

The man’s name is Rocky Jim, Jr., a 44-year-old Miccosukee Indian who has been wrestling alligators for 31 years, entertaining countless tourists from a sand pit and pond beneath a chickee hut along the Tamiami Trail, a two-lane road linking Miami to the port city of Tampa.

But on the final Sunday of 2015, the last remaining Miccosukee Indian in the century-old tradition of wrestling alligators decided it was time to step down, leaving no successors in sight among the tribe of around 600 people. The end came just minutes into the 1 o’clock show, when Jim coaxed the alligator’s mouth open by gently tapping its snout, then placed his hand inside.

The move is perilous only if something touches the alligator’s palate — a drop of sweat, a grain of sand — causing the jaw to reflexively snap shut. While pulling out his hand, he rotated it slightly and accidentally grazed a tooth.

The feeling was like “a door slamming on your hand. With sharp teeth,” Jim said in an interview later. But in the moment, as he looked down at his palm and forearm encased in the alligator’s jaw, he had only one thought: “Don’t shake.”

“If it shakes, my hand is going to go with it,” he told AFP, describing the thrashing motion alligators use to slice up fresh meat, much the same way as sharks. “Its natural instinct is to do that,” said Jim, who had been bitten several times before.

Alligator wrestling is considered a Native American tradition, first popularized in the early 1900s by a white man, Henry Coppinger, Jr, the US-born son of Irish immigrants, according to historian Patsy West.

Coppinger himself wrestled alligators, and recruited natives — who lived alongside the reptiles and hunted them — to perform, too. Paying crowds flocked to see men climb on alligators’ backs, open their jaws and flip them over — with the effect of making them go limp for a few minutes.

But today, the tradition is waning. Animal rights group have criticized the shows, casino revenue rather than alligator tourism often provides cash flow for native tribes, and Indian youths are increasingly turning to careers in modern society. “The skills are not as common as they once were,” said author and anthropologist Brent Weisman. Some native alligator wrestlers still remain among the larger Seminole tribe of some 2,000 people, which shares a historical connection to the Miccosukees.

Those that remain “have decided to do it very deliberately, not for a tourist attraction as it once was, but as a way of keeping traditional Seminole culture alive,” Weisman said. Jim was 13 when he learned to handle alligators from his father, Rocky Jim, Sr. They would go out in the canals of the Everglades in search of turtles, and the elder would demonstrate how to move the creatures away without hurting them, or getting hurt.

“Just see how they are moving and how they are going to react,” Jim recalled his father saying. “Just read their body language.” Jim was in his 30s when the tribe asked him to perform at the Indian Village, a tourist stop that sells crafts, offers airboat rides and hearty foods like pumpkin fry bread and catfish. He agreed. Far from a punch-out, smack-down event as the name “alligator wrestling” might imply, Jim became famous for pulling wild, hissing alligators heavier than his own 278-pound (125-kilogram) frame out of the water by their tails, then tip-toeing around them, stroking them, tapping them, even getting close enough to touch his nose to the snouts of the most aggressive among them.