(Monday, January 21st, 2008)

Bret Chism

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Gatorland is not only an essential landmark to our Orlando community, but it is where I discovered my first phobia—alligators. So there I was with my Brownie troop, a gaggle of six and seven year-old want-to-be girl-scouts. The Gator Jumparoo show had begun and fleshy, flailing, balls of pink meat, also known as dead chickens, were strung out on a wire over a pond of hungry alligators. As the gators began to circle their dinners, I stood still in anticipation. The other girls jumped up-and-down carelessly in excitement. I was in awe of their bravery.

I continued to watch my friends from across the lake, where they bounced and tested the strength of the surrounding docks of the gator pit. I wanted to join them, however, no iron-on patch seemed worth it. So I remained where I felt safe, on the concrete with my bored chaperone. Then, I couldn’t help what happened next.

I imagined the dock collapsed and my friends became the new reason for the feeding frenzy. Even now, I feel guilty for having this thought. I’d like to think that I would have jumped in to save my friends if it had really happened, but it’s more likely I would have ran away crying, a snotty mess. Regardless, I’ve been tormented by this scenario ever since.

Before becoming the International Sales Director for Gatorland, Bret spent years prying open the jaws of the animal I fear the most. He’s pretended to be eaten alive in the movie Held for Ransom when he was the stunt double for Dennis Hopper. He also was the gator handler in the original Jackass movie. How does someone end up in a profession like this? The same reason I ask people so many questions—it’s love.

Jana: So you mentioned you’re from Connecticut. How did you end up living in Orlando?
Bret: My father has really bad arthritis and so one year he picked us up and moved us [down here]. He was an electronics technician and really couldn’t afford me—Florida doesn’t really pay that well. So, I started working at a pet shop. One day the manager’s son—he worked here at Gatorland—said, “Hey why don’t you start working at Gatorland?”

So I did. By 1987 I was doing odd jobs, you know, like working at the snack bar and taking pictures of people holding alligators and snakes. Then in 1989, I joined the entertainment department. At that time, there was only the Gator Jumparoo show where big alligators jump out of the water for food. Then in 1991, we hired a gentleman by the name of Tim Williams who taught us all how to wrestle alligators.

I was going to ask exactly that. How did you become a gator wrestler?
I was drafted. They promised me more money and I’m still waiting for that money. [Laughs] About two and half years ago, I was bit pretty badly by a python. He actually tried to swallow all the way up to my wrist before he found out that I wasn’t edible. He spit me out and my hand was bleeding like crazy. I went to the … well, I didn’t go to the doctor. I’ve been bitten by animals left and right, so I just kind of took care of myself.

Not even when a snake tries to eat your entire hand do you go to the doctor?
Only, if it’s really bad. I’ve been bit by bears, a rattle snake and all kinds of other stuff.

What animal bite hurts the worse?
The rattle snake was the worst. I was out of work for about three months.

Wow, what happened?

My hand—right here—is where I got bit. [He shows me a fairly small scar on the inside of his right middle finger.] It swelled all the way into my upper chest and into my other arm.

And you didn’t go to the doctor?

No, I went to the doctor. The python bite wasn’t that bad. It was just a bunch of cuts and stuff because they have over 200 teeth in their mouth. When they bite they just put their needle teeth in there ya know?

So it was more of a pressure kind of thing?

Yeah. They actually had to reattach the tendon to my middle finger from that rattle snake bite. There was so much damage. See? You can see that scar right there. [And yes, I can see that there is a much bigger scar down the middle of his palm.]
So anyways, I was walking through the marketing department with my hand all wrapped up in bandages and the marketing director said, “Bret, when are you going to work for me?

I said, “Work for you and leave entertainment?” Then, about two months later I was in marketing. I had noticed the scars all over my hands. Plus, I started to notice the gray hair starting to happen and I said, “You know what? I can’t wrestle alligators forever.” And so that’s when I went into the marketing department, but I still help out every now and again.

How would someone that isn’t drafted become a gator wrestler?
Put in an application. The main requirement is that you have to love people, you have to love animals and you have to have an appreciation for everything. We’ve had people put in applications to wrestle gators and it doesn’t work out because the passion is not there. I have a passion for these animals. They’re prehistoric. They lived during the time of the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs aren’t here, but the alligators are which means that they’re doing something right.

This is a great park and it’s a family owned business. The family takes care of us … even after the fire [in November ‘06]. Out of the 100 or so employees, not one person has left since.

How is Gatorland recouping after the fire?

We’re doing pretty well. It took about a year for the architecture to be approved by the board of directors, as well as the county, to make sure that all is to code. We broke ground on October 8th and the building is coming along fine. As a matter of fact, I think we’re a head of schedule. I think they are looking at a Memorial Day re-opening. [The new gift shop is now open.]

The first time you throw down with a gator, what are you thinking?

[Laughs] What the hell am I do here? That was the first thing that came to my mind.

Was there anyone there to help you?
Oh yeah. Tim Williams taught two of us how to wrestle alligators. It was funny because he tricked me into getting on the back of an alligator. He was sitting on the back—he’s been doing it since the early 70’s—and he said, “Alright, what I want you to do is put your hand here, put your hand here, put your leg here and put your leg here.” And then he walked away.

And then there you were?
And then I was sitting on the back of an alligator. It was pretty intense. The alligator did fine. He didn’t move around too much. Everything went okay.

Are female gators harder to wrestle?
No, not really. It’s about the same. If you’re sitting on the back of an alligator, regardless if it’s male or female, it just wants to get out from underneath you. So as far as a difference in ferociousness when we’re doing a show, there really isn’t any. But if we’re collecting eggs here in the breeding marsh the females will protect the nest and so they will be really ferocious. The males are doing whatever it is they do. They’ve breeded and are done.

Do the gators become familiar with certain trainers?
Yes. Definitely. They do get used to certain people. I could take you out into that area right there and the alligators would run away. I could go out there and they’d come up to me because they recognize me as a source of food. They actually get to know voices and what have you. We’re doing a lot of training with our alligators, like hand signals and voice commands. Some alligators respond better to certain people. The first person that does training [with an alligator] is called a shaper. He is the one that does the training and then for everyone else—for example like you—it would take awhile. You could call out their name and they would know the commands. They just wouldn’t know your voice.

So gators know their names?
Yes, but they recognize their name as a source of food. It’s not a name they recognize, it’s just that they know when they hear that name they will be fed.

Are you aware of any research studies involving these animals?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, back in the early 80’s, Gatorland pioneered the artificial insemination of female alligators. Nobody has ever tried that before. National Geographic comes out here quite a bit. In fact, Mr. Brady Barr is here today doing some studies on the vision of alligators. He has a bunch of crocodiles that he studies down in Costa Rica. Some of them are going blind and getting cataracts. So he’s going around to different places, like Gatorland, and seeing if they have the same problems with their eyesight as well.

The geological survey team of University of Florida borrowed a bunch of our alligators and fed them certain things to see what made them more fertile. So there are all kinds of neat studies going on out there and most of them are dealing with the intelligence of the animal, but some are dealing with the farming aspects because alligators are a farmed animal. We are no longer a farm and quit being a farm almost ten years ago.

Where do all your gators come from?
We’ve been open since 1949 and so these are just the descendants from the original alligators that Mr. Owen Godwin had. Plus we do a lot of trading with other places to get new blood in the line.

What is the lifespan of a gator?

We think about sixty to seventy years.

Wow. So some of the original gators could be still around that started this park?
Yeah, absolutely. As a matter of fact, we think there are a few alligators out in the lake that Owen Godwin collected from the early 30’s to early 40’s.

That is insane. So that’s how the park started—a personal collection?
Owen Godwin had this crazy idea about showing people from other states alligators. So he started this little business in Sebring, Florida. It was a hamburger stand, and on the side of it there was an enclosure with a couple alligators. When he didn’t get too much business—only because Sebring is out in the middle of nowhere—he started looking around. As he was driving up SR 441, back then it was a dirt road, he noticed there were a couple of big pits on the side of the road. They were called borrow pits and were leftover from the dirt they had made roads with. They were filling up with water and he thought that it would be a perfect place. So he bought sixteen acres including the lake for $300, which he couldn’t afford back then. He actually had to get two of his buddies to invest a hundred bucks each and the business has grown on from there. Now, we’re up to about 110 acres.

How do you manage the gator population?

When we were a gator farm this [the breeding marsh] was our main breeding stock—there are one hundred female alligators and thirty male alligators in there. The males would mate with several females in a season. When we were a farm, we fed them very rarely, like five to six times a year. They were lean, mean, mating machines. We used to get like 5,000 eggs of which we raised for their meat and hide. When we quit being a farm we started feeding the gators a lot, a heck of a lot, and they just got fat, dumb and happy and didn’t breed as much.

Why does Gatorland sell gator bites? Isn’t that kind of morbid?
You know what? We quit selling gator bites after we weren’t a gator farm anymore. But we had a lot of people who came to gator land and traditionally would get themselves some gator meat. They were like, “Hey, why don’t you sell gator meat anymore?” So now we purchase the meat from North Florida. We don’t harvest any of our own animals.

How many people come to the park each day or year?
We average 400,000 people a year. So on a good day will give 2,300-2,400 people. On a day like the end of September when no one is on vacation, we’ll get 600-700 people strolling through.

What do you think people should do if they see a gator in the wild?
The best thing to do is to look at ‘em and enjoy him. Seriously, alligators are not the monsters everyone thinks they are. They have fought for their existence for many, many years and even were an endangered species at one point. Now, there is so many in the state of Florida—too many, it is really cool though to see a wild gator without any fencing.

For those that have small pets, what should they do if they fear their animal is under attack?

If it’s a small animal, it’s a prey item. It really is. There’s not a whole lot that can be done once an alligator has your animal but fortunately people have not been attacked to often. We do get quite a few attacks recorded each year, but an attack could be a little boy picking up a baby alligator and getting nipped. The game commission considers that an attack. Since 1947, only twenty-one people have been killed by alligators in the United States. The white-tailed deer kills sixty-six people a year through aggressive attacks.

So, I don’t know how this was pressed into my memory but I heard if a gator chases you, it’s best to run in a zigzag. Is there any truth to that?
Everyone always says that but no. I’ve seen alligators twist sideways. I’ve seen ‘em run in one direction then suddenly turn on themselves. I’ve seen them jump out of the water. I’ve seen them jump up off the land. They’re very agile animals. Zigzag? I think that was made up by somebody who wanted to see someone get eaten. [Laughs]

I imagine your workman’s comp insurance is pretty high for your employees.
Yes! It’s only because we have alligators. Other parks—I’m not going to mention any names—but they’ll have sharks and whales and pay less per employee. Insurance companies are scared to death by alligators and crocodiles.

Even with the statistics that you told me of earlier?
Yep, when you say alligator to insurance companies, it scares the heck out of them.

*Interview Date: 1/21/2008

Movies and TV Shows that have been shot at Gatorland
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Ace Ventura 3
Jackass: the movie
Way Back Home
Held For Ransom
Dragons Alive: Smart Reptiles (Documentary)
The Jeff Corwin Experience
Wild, Wild World with Nigel Marvin
The David Letterman Show
Good Morning America
Reptile Wild with Brady Barr
Storm Stories (Weather Channel)
The Little Zoo That Could (Animal Planet Series)
Vacation (opening credit shot)
Gator king (BBC)
Swamp thing
David Attenborough (BBC)
Last of the ruling reptiles (BBC)
Big Al (BBC)
National Geographic

Posted Monday, January 21st, 2008 in Orlando Interviews , People of PositionTags: , ,
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