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Clear skies, gator wrestling, and UFOs: The San Luis Valley has it all

Staff members Josh Stokely, right, and Drew Nelson worked with an alligator at Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a roadside attraction in the sparsely populated San Luis Valley, Mosca, Colo.
Staff members Josh Stokely, right, and Drew Nelson worked with an alligator at Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a roadside attraction in the sparsely populated San Luis Valley, Mosca, Colo.Theo Stroomer/The New York Times

MOSCA, Colo. — Wes Arneson planted his bare feet in the mud and prepared for the fight of his life: a tussle with a 400-pound alligator called Big Bertha who lives in a geothermal swamp under a willow tree in high-desert Colorado.

Bertha opened her jaw like a lion and let out a hiss like a snake. “Ride it like a cowboy,” someone yelled. Arneson hopped on.

Residents call the San Luis Valley, a vast alpine desert in southern Colorado, one of the weirdest patches of the West. Sparsely populated and largely free of light pollution, the valley lays claim to more than a dozen spiritual centers, a UFO watchtower and a roadside attraction called the Colorado Gators Reptile Park.

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Here, the headline activity is the alligator wrestling course, a three-hour endeavor in which novices wrangle carnivorous reptiles with names like Pitbull, Darth Gator and Sir Chomps-a-lot. The cost: $100.

Critics see the park as a dangerous, even cruel, gimmick contrived for adrenaline junkies raised on reality television. But to the people of San Luis Valley — which is isolated, agricultural and missing out on much of Colorado’s economic boom — homespun tourist attractions are a way of life.

“In order to survive down here, you have to do something different,” said Judy Messoline, 71, who opened the UFO watchtower down the road after her cattle operation failed. (In 16 years she has had 30,000 visitors, she said, and 110 extraterrestrial sightings.)

In an era of pricey tourist attractions with well-rehearsed routines, the gator park is defiantly do-it-yourself, with dirt roads, hand-painted signs, rusty pools and a disdain for safety measures like work boots and gloves. The park has no insurance, and a caution sign looms at the entrance: “Warning! Trespassers will be delicious.”

“It’s an adventure,” said the park’s owner, Jay Young, 42, whose family moved here in 1974; they started a tilapia farm using thermal waters that flow beneath the landlocked valley, brought in alligators to aid in the cleanup and eventually converted the operation into a reptile menagerie. “It wouldn’t be fun,” he said, “if it was safe.”

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While alligator wrestling exists in swampy parts of the country like Florida, it is most often performed by professionals, and few places allow rookies to take part. Here, injuries are part of the package. “We’ve only lost one finger,” Young said. “Actually it wasn’t lost. I pried it out of the gator’s mouth and sent it to the hospital.”

The gator park attracts people like sky divers and motorcycle racers looking for the next thrill — but Young also seems to have cornered a market few knew existed: people who use gator wrestling as therapy.

Student Wes Arneson kissed an alligator while keeping its jaws clamped shut during a wrestling course at Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
Student Wes Arneson kissed an alligator while keeping its jaws clamped shut during a wrestling course at Colorado Gators Reptile Park.Theo Stroomer/The New York Times

Arneson, 52, is a tourist from Minnesota who works part time for a tribal school district. He suffers from chronic pain caused mostly by a car accident and said he was looking for a few minutes, or even seconds, when all he could think about was something else.

He planned his trip around the class. “Freedom, that’s what this is about,” he said.

He wore khaki shorts and a T-shirt to his lesson, and brought his girlfriend, Lorie Steinke, who mostly stood far back.

In Pond 1, two employees taught Arneson and another student to pluck 2-foot alligators from the water by the nape. The park’s turkeys cackled and a crew of emus looked on. “Toes sticking up make a good snack,” said an instructor, Drew Nelson, 36. “If you feel something you don’t like, be a tree.”

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Then they were on to Pond 2, which teemed with alligators measuring 4 to 7 feet in length. Nelson ran in like a child at the shore, yanked an alligator named Kim Kardashian by the tail and, with a giant tug, jumped onto her back.

Arneson, the student, went next.

“This is the most dangerous-size alligator,” Nelson said. “They’re big enough to do some real damage, but small enough to move real fast.”

The Young family first imported alligators from Florida in the 1980s, using them to consume tilapia waste. Soon, though, the reptiles proved more popular — and profitable — than the fish.

The park opened in 1990 and grew to include pythons and hundreds of other pets whose owners had abandoned them. The wrestling course began in 2000.

Staff members say the real purpose of the class is to pull the reptiles from the ponds to check them for wounds and apply antibiotics if necessary. Tourists are simply helping out. “We love alligators,” Nelson said. “We’re looking for their injuries, not the glamour.”

But a veterinarian with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals condemned the practice, saying alligators mostly like to be left alone. “We encourage anyone who cares about animals to stay far away from this place,” said the veterinarian, Heather Rally.

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Wes Arneson held and alligator's jaw.
Wes Arneson held and alligator's jaw.Theo Stroomer/The New York Times

At the park, the class moved to Pond 3, the finale.

Nelson ran into murky water carrying a green lasso. Neck deep, he hooked the rope around something heavy and then slowly emerged, dragging a 10-foot-3-inch alligator named Big Bertha by the neck.

Bertha waggled and snapped. Arneson danced around the gator and then jumped onto her back, hooking his feet under her arms, his hands in her jaw crease.

Two visitors from Denver stood by. “I think it’s mean, honestly,” said Chance Galindo, 43.

Her travel partner agreed. “I’m kind of half hoping he’ll actually bite somebody,” said L.B. Templeton, 44. “Like bullfighting. You love it when the matador gets it.”

In front of them, Arneson yanked Bertha’s head back, delivered a kiss to the snout, climbed off and watched her slither away.

As a storm blew in, an instructor issued a word of advice. “Come on,” said Josh Stokely, 26. “Let’s get out of here while we’re still alive.”