No trip to the Colorado State Fair would be complete without catching at least one performance of The Swampmaster Gator Show.
17-year veteran alligator handler, Jeff Quattrocchi serves up three thrilling and educational shows per day. The majority of the show educates the audience to the homes, habits and dangers of the American alligator. Rarely found in the wild here in Colorado, audience members get a chance to see an eight foot gator handled by an expert as he shows them aspects of it too dangerous to discover on your own.
Whether it's demonstrating the reptiles quick side-to-side movements, or the gator's tendency to try and use its tail to pull a victim closer to its deadly maw, Quattrocchi approaches the animal with the respect it's due. Some will say his use of a two-and-a-half foot stick is simply to tease the animal, when in fact it's the only thing that can safely tell him how fast the animal is reacting so he can avoid getting bitten.
For the most part, alligators would rather just run away from humans. But some, primarily mothers protecting their eggs and territorial males, called bulls, cause the most problems in southern states where gators are prevalent. Alligators are a fresh water reptile, unlike their cousin the crocodile. Their diet is different too, focusing mostly on turtles, fish and waterfowl. Quattrocchi spends a great deal of time educating his audience as he slowly approaches the gator just a few feet away.
He even weaves American Indian culture and practices into his show, explaining how they would hunt alligators to harvest. At one point in the show, he demonstrates a technique called bulldogging. Pinning the gator's jaws between his chin and chest leaves his hands free to finish other tasks, such as tying a rope around the gators jaws as Indians would.
All of the alligators Quattrocchi uses are wild alligators that have recently been sentenced to death by the state of Florida. When an alligator gets too close to humans and is labeled a nuisance, a trapper would be called out to catch and destroy it. Quattrocchi works out a deal where the trapper takes it to a kill pond, a place where alligators are farmed for their meat and hide like cows and chickens. He then purchases the gator from the farm and uses it in his show. "It's the real alligator show, it's as real as it gets," says Quattrocchi.
The gators stay with Quattrocchi for 10 to 12 days, performing with him in the show, albeit unbeknownst to them. Their aggressive nature is exactly what Quattrocchi is looking for, because it provides the audience with a real chance to see just how dangerous these animals can be, and to learn to stay away from them.
After the gator finishes his 10 to 12 day tenure with Quattrocchi, and completes roughly 30 shows, they begin to learn that he isn't going to harm or kill them. They begin to run away from him and become less aggressive. At this point Quattrocchi retires the gator to a breeding pond in Florida where, unlike the kill ponds, they live out the rest of their lives. So far he has saved more than 100 gators lives this way.
But the gators don't always play by the same rules. Quattrocchi has been bitten 13 times during his lengthy career. Each one he chalks up to his own mistake. Even his most recent bite came when he made what he calls a rookie mistake; and he says, he knew he was in trouble the second he made the wrong move. He respects the awesome power and lethality the alligator has, and makes it a point to enter every show with a clear head. "Every show is a career-ender, possibly," explains Quattrocchi.
That career ending attack almost happened earlier this year. In May, Quattrocchi was in the middle of his fifth show with a nearly nine-foot gator. "I've never been hit that hard by anything, so after that it was survival mode," recalls Quattrocchi. At some 2000 pounds of pressure per square inch, the gator jaws were not going to be pried open. All Quattrocchi could do was try not to have his arm torn off. Eventually his arm was freed, and the injuries required more than 35 staples and two dozen stitches. It took 11 weeks for Quattrocchi to recover fully. His show at the Colorado State Fair is his second event since returning from his injury.
The Swampmaster Gator Show runs every day at 11:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. at the fair. Afterward, those interested can check out his pet baby alligator Wally (he hatched and raised him from an egg) as well.
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Updated: 05/20/2013 - Two weekends left to catch one great show!