ORLANDO, Fla. >> Nick Clark was 33 and coming off a $72,000-a-year salary when he made a radical career change — wrestling alligators at Gatorland for $6 an hour.
He said his previous employer had fired him when, “burnt out,” he refused to sell an A/C unit to a couple who didn’t need it. To Clark, grappling with gators intrigued him.
“I always tell people that Floridians who have their A/C broken in the summer time are a lot scarier than alligators,” he said. “People get downright ugly.”
The Leesburg resident, 57, is now a reptile specialist at the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation in the Seminole State Forest in northeast Lake County. In a research project funded by federal grant money, he’s helping prepare about 200 Eastern indigo snakes at the nature center for the breeding season. It’s the country’s biggest restoration effort of the endangered serpent.
Many working in natural sciences got their start with professional degrees. But Clark took a different path, risking limb and life for Gatorland crowds up to seven times a day.
“It’s easy to know more about reptiles than the general public,” he said of the work. “It nourishes the ego.”
Handling a venomous cottonmouth on a recent weekday, he pointed to the snake’s nearby offspring conceived independent of any mate.
“It’s called parthenogenesis,” Clark said of the viper. “There’s some recorded cases of it happening in cottonmouths.”
Years before his job as a well-paid factory appliance technician, Clark had zero interest in lizards or reptiles. His snake-owning neighbor growing up was considered “odd” by many.
But that aspect is its biggest selling point, he said. The pay wasn’t great, but he enjoyed the work.
“My manager said, ‘They’re here to see it, not you,’” Clark said. “And that took a lot of pressure off me.”
Standing in a circular sand pit, a wrestler begins the show by pointing out a kid in the audience and asking the youngster which of the reptiles in the alligator-filled moat will be the wrestler’s opponent.
Clark practiced for months, dragging the alligator by the tail to tire it out, then pinning it down with his knees, before his first match.
“Everybody that does it gets bit,” he said.
The sensation is like getting your hand caught in a car door with fangs.
“I don’t remember the teeth,” he said. “I just remember the pressure.”
Bleeding from battle with 9-foot reptiles, his fingers would be cut from the closing and opening of the alligator’s scales.
Old photographs show him resting his chin on the mouth of an alligator with his arms spread carefree.
Greg Miller, who owns No Limit Event Rentals in Orlando, can appreciate a gator wrestler’s skills. He has been bringing gator wrestling to events for about six years.
“It’s just something different that separates us,” he said. “The guy that does it, he puts on a big show and makes it even more exciting.”
As the years went by, Clark became the director of entertainment and worked in reptile education at the theme park, which began as a roadside attraction in 1949.
He wrestled gators for five years before his next career change — snakes — in 2000, when he was hired at the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford and later became the curator of reptiles.
Some zoological associations don’t think highly of using wrestling matches with reptiles as a way to educate the public, but at Gatorland, Clark said he was taught to say “thank you” to the alligator after every performance.
“I think most people like it because it does make them different than everybody else,” he said. “Besides . I’ve gotten better treatment from alligators than people.”