Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca will teach you how to wrestle gators
MOSCA — This is the unlikely story of how Colorado became one of the few places where a novice can wrestle alligators. It involves tilapia carcasses, illegal pets and lost appendages.
There’s a lot to unpack, so let’s start here, with the cast of characters at Mosca’s Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
To put it in the universal animal park language we all now speak, if the Mosca alligator park and rescue was “Tiger King,” Jay Young would be Joe Exotic, minus the attempted murder for hire charge, flamboyance and mullet. He grew up with the gators and has worked there since 1996, when he left engineering school at Colorado State University to help his dad run the place.
Conner Mather leads many of the park’s gator wrestling classes and helps with caring for the 250 alligators, including the biggest, Bruce (at 12 ½ feet and 900 pounds), and the meanest, Ornery and Foxy. (We’ll get to how Foxy got her name in a minute. It’s not because she’s a sexy gator.)
But first the wrestling class, which is why I drove four hours south to the shadows of the Great Sand Dunes where the Colorado Gators Reptile Park creeps over 80 acres. It seemed novel — not only that alligators would reside here in our state, but also that the public could go and wrestle them. I like weird, quirky things, and so I figured, without giving it much thought at all, that I would go wrestle some gators. Admittedly, I didn’t think it through.
In my mind — which, again, didn’t really put much effort into considering just what a terrible idea this was — gator wrestling had a sort of Disneyesque sterility. “Park” is in the rescue’s name; surely they’d keep me, and anyone else who signed up to do it, safe. No one really got hurt, right? Right
Spoiler alert: alligator wrestling is not a novelty, and not something you should do on a whim. It’s dangerous, and, depending on who you ask, could hurt the gators. After walking around the gator park and meeting Young and Mather, I don’t believe that they’re hurting the animals, but I also wasn’t about to voluntarily put myself in the path of the alligators’ ultra-forceful chomp. I skipped the wrestling, but, according to Young, 150 or so amateur gator grapplers per year do not.
How Foxy got her name
“You have to really love this job to do this job,” Mather said. “Because they can bite.”
A Colorado Springs native, Mather grew up with the park’s gators. His father and Young have been friends since they were kids, so the young Mather got gator experience long before he started working at the park five years ago. His worst injury — because in this line of work, injuries are an expected part of the job — came when his fingers got trapped in a gator’s mouth for nearly four minutes. It happened during a wrestling class, when he was out with students. Luckily someone called Young, who came out with a long metal file and pried the gator’s mouth open. Mather shows me his hand; he still has all his digits.
That’s not the case for a couple guys — regulars actually, because the gator wrestling class has regulars — who lost fingers to an alligator. Or, as anyone working at the rescue will correct you in that deadpan, Disneyland Jungle Cruise guide-style shtick they’ve all got down pat: They haven’t lost any fingers at the park; they know where they are. They’re in the gift shop.
And yes, actual human fingers bit off by the gators are displayed in the gift shop.
The fingers belonged to two men in the Fox family, the regulars who come down at least once a year to wrestle. While it wasn’t Foxy who snatched the fingers, she’s done other damage to the crew, which is how she got her name. “She’s bitten pretty much every member of the Fox family who’s wrestled her,” Mather said. So there you go: if you get bit enough at the rescue, you get a namesake gator. Seems fair.
Enter the tilapia disposals
Colorado Gators Reptile Park is one of the few alligator rescues outside of Florida and Texas. The animals can live in our colder climate because of the property’s geothermal well pumping out 87-degree water. The water keeps the gators warm, although — fun, freaky fact alert — alligators can freeze, thaw out and come right back to life.
The majority of the gators come to the Mosca park via confiscations — people keeping illegal pets that get seized by law enforcement. Young said they get about two dozen gators a year that way, and considering alligators can live 60-90 years, that becomes a lot of gators. The critters are open to visitors year-round, although a banner time to visit would be during the upcoming Gator Fest August 8-9. (And get this: Gator Fest has a theme. This year’s Gator Fest theme? The Roaring ’20s.)
The park is home to more than just alligators. There are crocodiles, snakes, tortoises, iguanas, emus and macaws. There are also tons of plants you can buy — bamboo, grapes, fig trees. And fish, because that’s how it all got started anyway.
In the beginning, there were no alligators. No crocodiles or tortoises or emus, either. There were only tilapia — lots and lots of tilapia. The Youngs raised them to be eaten or to travel down to Texas to stock fishing ponds, and they still do. The trouble was, after fileting the tilapia, they’d be left with loads of fish guts and carcasses, and nobody wants that. So Jay Young’s dad, Erwin Young, did the only logical thing and brought in alligators to act as a sort of garbage disposals for the dead fish.
“People saw we had alligators and started dropping off other things. Big snakes, reptiles. So they shifted their focus to be more of a refuge,” Mather said. A classic business model pivot.
As it turned out, locals and visitors coming through the area really wanted to see the gators, and they were willing to pay for it. Now, the gator park is the primary source of revenue and the tilapia are secondary.
“That’s what keeps the bills paid and the rescue going,” Young said of the park. “It takes a lot of money to pay for other people’s animals.”
The alligator wrestling class started when Young’s friend helped him move several of the smaller gators. The friend had a great time and said, “You oughta charge people for wrestling alligators.” And so Young did.
For $100, you’ll go through four stages of gator wrestling, starting with the little ones and going all the way up to the really big guys. Classes can be done one-on-one or for up to four people, and, if you’re crazy enough to do it, you should book at least a week in advance.
The class isn’t just about entertaining us humans. Instructors identify hurt gators, pull them out, and then wrestle them in order to subdue them enough to get ointment put on their injuries, which the gators get from fighting with each other.
“We’re not just going out there for funsies,” Mather said.
But many animal welfare activists worry that it’s more about fun for the humans and less about caring for the creatures. This is where the Carole Baskins come in.
Before heading to the park myself and chickening out about the wrestling, I reached out to Colorado Voters for Animals to see if they had concerns over gator wrestling and the park in general. Executive Director Roland Halpern let me know that yes, yes they did.
“Colorado Voters for Animals does not support the use of wild animals for entertainment,” he wrote in an email. “An alligator may be intentionally provoked to show its teeth or forced to exhibit aggressive behavior to add to the so-called entertainment. There is no question that the alligators are stressed in these encounters and they may also suffer injury as a result. Just observing what is involved should convince any compassionate person that these animals are not willing participants. Alligator wrestling shows a total lack of respect to wild animals and can result in desensitizing human observers and participants who will rationalize the abuse of animals as an acceptable form of sport.”
I, too, found the photos of people sitting on the gators with their heads and necks bent up at awkward angles disturbing. Not wanting to hurt the gator and obviously not wanting it to hurt me either, it was an easy choice to skip the wrestling. Young and Mather, though, are adamant that the gators aren’t being hurt at the park.
“We’re like a big retirement home for reptiles,” Mather added. “We try to make sure they live the best life possible while they’re here.”
The closest I got to wrestling was with Morris, the park’s resident Hollywood gator. You might know him as the alligator who ate Chubb’s hand in “Happy Gilmore,” but he’s appeared in dozens of flicks during his 30 years as a working actor. Morris has a large cage all to himself because he doesn’t play well with other gators. I went in that cage with Young and Mather to make myself feel like at least I did something semi-gator-brave and didn’t drive four hours for nothing.
“He has to eat me first, so you have at least a few seconds,” Mather said, again in that tone that makes you question whether he’s joking or serious.
In the cage with Morris, I fully felt the power of the armored animals. The agility of those short little legs and the swiftness of its jaws. These animals are dangerous, and this is no Disney park. This isn’t like watching “Tiger King” from the safety of your sofa. I didn’t wrestle him or touch any part of him but his tail, but that was enough for me to respect his strength and dominance.
So yes, you can wrestle alligators in Colorado, but do you really want to? I didn’t, but the option is there, at an 80-acre park in the shadow of the Great Sand Dunes.
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