When most people spot an alligator, they run away—fast.
But for Ashley Lawrence, 26, these slimy and scaly swamp creatures weighing up to 600 pounds and stretching 10 feet long, are her best friends.
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The Homestead, Florida native is an alligator rescuer and her job entails venturing into the murky Everglades to hand-capture “nuisance alligators” — those that wander from swamps onto homeowners' properties, across highways, or even into town. Normally, state trappers would remove the animals, catching and killing them, in order to sell their skin or meat. However, Lawrence and the Gator Boys (the mostly male rescue group she belongs to) step in to catch and transport the gators safely to the Everglades Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale, where young gators are returned to the wild and older ones are moved to a sanctuary. The group funds its rescues by performing alligator wrestling shows (with the nuisance gators) for the public.
The members' daring deeds have been caught on camera for the second season of Animal Planet’s "Gator Boys" (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) — a reality series based on their very unconventional careers. For example: On the newest episode airing Sunday, one of Lawrence's colleagues captures a gator with a bullet wound, while another handles a venomous snake collection.
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Make no mistake: Lawrence never intended to be a TV star. Animals are really more her thing. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by animals or rescuing injured ones I found in my backyard,” Lawrence, a former tiger trainer, told Yahoo! Shine. “I can understand and communicate with animals in a very special way, but the key to understanding them is respecting the fact that they’re wild animals. I never forget that.”
Lawrence, who is only 4 foot, 11 inches tall, begins each morning by climbing into the gator pit, which houses 18 to 20 alligators at a time. She cleans the pit, bathes the animals by scrubbing the algae off their scaly skin, and then tends to the babies, which can weigh anywhere from 4 to 8 pounds. “Males can be up to 15 feet long, and the females are usually 8 feet long."
Then, it’s time to get ready for the wrestling show for an audience of 100 or so spectators. Shows run back-to-back and typically last 20 minutes. “We handle our gators more gently than they might in a traditional gator wrestling show,” she said. “The alligators usually aren’t threatened by me, because they’ve watched me walk around the pit interacting with their peers. When they're relaxed (clue: their behavior gets sluggish), you know it’s safe to approach them.”
Tricks include reaching into the water and pulling out a gator by the tail, jumping onto its back (their blind spot), and rolling around with them. "I also perform 'the bulldog,' which is holding the gator's jaws closed between my chin and chest. That leaves my hands free to tie a rope around his jaws," she said. "Another one is called the 'Florida smile.' That's where I hold the jaws open to expose all 80 of his teeth." For the grand finale, Lawrence performs "the face-off" in which she holds the jaws open by setting her chin on the edge of the gator's front teeth, and then holds out both her arms.
While there haven’t been too many close calls, recently Lawrence had a scare. “We were understaffed, so I was performing 30 shows a day, from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.,” she said. “I was mentally and physically exhausted and not focused on my surroundings. Plus, it was clear that the gators were tired of me — they were snapping their jaws, swinging their tails, and swimming away from me. At one point, I was surrounded by 20 gators in the water, when suddenly, one swung his head and his jaws grazed my calf. He could have dragged me down into the water, or worse. It was the only time that I stopped the show.”
However, Lawrence is adamant that alligators get a bad rap. “They look like they’re from 'Jurassic Park,' so people think they’re man-eating death traps,” she said. “Alligators are carnivorous, but they’re not interested in people. They can’t even run that fast because their legs are short and their tail and head are so heavy.” As for those scary gator attacks so prevalent in the news? Lawrence said we only hear half the story. “When alligators attack, it’s usually because someone provoked or cornered them or got too close to their babies. But these guys are so lazy, they would prefer to be left alone,” she said.
Lawrence’s goal: To spend her life as a kind of wildlife whisperer. “I may not work with alligators forever, but I can’t imagine not being with animals,” she said. “I want to teach people how to communicate and respect all types of animals by having them form personal connection. That's what it's all about."
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