When it comes to alligator wrestling, finesse trumps brute strength every time. The term “wrestling,” of course, is totally misleading. Humans and gators do not grapple one-on-one. Alligator wrestling is closer to calf-roping, a human stunt performed using a wild beast (in this case several hundred pound of reptilian anger attached to razor sharp teeth) as a prop. And while it’s doubtful the Black Hills of South Dakota spring to mind as a center for this extreme sport, Reptile Gardens outside Rapid City is one of the country’s foremost training grounds. Like most great attractions, this herpetological hotbed was originally the daydream of an eccentric.
In 1935, Earl Brockelsby, a 19-year-old rancher’s kid who loved snakes, worked as a guide at a different South Dakota tourist attraction. At the end of each tour, Earl thanked visitors by removing his giant Stetson – revealing a live diamondback coiled on his head. Guests were fascinated and young Earl was entrepreneurial. The following year, Brockelsby and some buddies built an 18-by-24-foot “zoo” at the top of a hill where, according to his heir Johnny Brockelsby, cars could be relied on to overheat. Reptile Gardens was hatched.
As it heads into its sixth decade as a gator wrestling destination, Reptile Gardens now has an official training gator named Blacky, offering internships based around a curriculum that includes invaluable professional tricks such as marking the nose of the beast you plan to wrestle with lipstick.
“There’s only a couple whose back you have a chance on,” says Johnny, who started gator wrestling at the park when he was a scrawny kid of 14 and now works in public relations. “The other 40 or 50 gators? They’re gonna win every time.”
As sports go, gator wrestling is one of the newer additions to this Black Hills institution that has more than a thousand snakes, ancient tortoises, Komodo Dragons, and crocs. (Several of that latter group had a cameo in ‘Live and Let Die,’ in which James Bond scampered across their backs). With more than 225 species of reptiles, Reptile Gardens has one of the most, if not the most complete collection of any zoo in the world. It all started with a rattlesnake.
Today, it’s the alligator show that gets the raves, says Johnny, and being one of the three or four gator wrestlers (there are five, sometime six shows a day in the summer) is by far the most-lusted-after job.
“They’re the ones who get the girls,” he says.
Matt Plank, who just retired from alligator wrestling Memorial Day after ending up in the emergency room with his fifth bite, started at the park in 2007 when he was 15. He worked the cafeteria until he turned 18 and was deemed ready to jump into a pit with the gators with taped mouths, a strategy that allows apprentices to jump on their back and gain control of their jaws (there’s a soft spot underneath).
And even though gator wrestling would hardly be considered a thinking man’s sport, Plank now has a bachelor’s degree in conservation biology and works full-time at the park. As for the scar from the 17 stitches on his left forearm? They’re still in that itchy stage.
More information: Reptile Gardens is located six miles south of Rapid City, on the way to Mount Rushmore. The valley where it’s located was on the short list for the headquarters of the newly formed UN back in 1945 – along with Geneva, Brussels, FDR’s family estate in Hyde Park and, of course, Manhattan. CBS news commentator Edward R. Murrow went so far as to suggest that the fresh air of the Black Hills would aid in clear thinking, definitely a plus for an organization designed to keep international peace.