My name is Martina, and for three years I’ve worked at a Reptile Rescue Zoo in Southwest Florida. We take in rescue reptiles as well as seized and reposesed animals by court order, and it’s a family owned and run zoo: instead of growing up with makeup and designer shoes, I played with Geckos outdoors and wore combat boots – I’ve never really been a ‘girly’ girl, if that makes sense
It’s a life I love and wouldn’t trade anything for, but one thing people always seem to forget is that animals can be very dangerous if not treated with proper respect. I learned that the hard way six years ago, when I was seventeen years old.
It wasn’t the first time I’d shadowed my dad on a rescue mission; I’d helped him get lizards and pythons from people’s homes before – I’d even been bitten by a large monitor lizard the year before, and that had earned me twenty stitches. But this was the biggest and by far the most dangerous creature we’d ever gone after: A fully-grown Black Caiman, easily ten feet long and weighing in at over 200 pounds. He had been a rich man’s pet which he’d kept in a small pond on his large property, but after the caiman had killed his neighbour’s dog the man was given a choice: have the state euthanize the animal, or we rescue it. He chose us.
The pond was about a hundred feet across, and the caiman had been seen basking along the shores of the pond, but for now it had decided to go back into the water. My dad decided we would catch him in a small dingy the owner provided us using a usual crocodilian wrestling tool: a heavily reinforced lasso which we could close around the jaws of the beast. On all crocodilians, the muscles that open the animal’s jaws are much weaker than those that close them, so if we could prevent it from biting and restrain the animal until it tired itself out we could bind him peacefully for transportation. But this required the caiman getting close enough to lasso, which was where I came in: using a hunk of semi frozen hamburger attached to a rope, I would lure in the caiman so my dad – our head zoologist – would lasso the caiman. Sounds simple, but it’s actually really dangerous.
My dad paddled us out into the middle of the pond. The caiman was nowhere to be seen – it may have been at the bottom of the pond. I threw the hunk of beef over the side and moved it through the water column, teasing it to create a scent trail. My dad was standing by the edge, scanning the water over his horn rimmed glasses. I was really nervous; it was a big jump from carrying snakes and smaller lizards to something this big and I wasn’t sure I was ready. But the caiman didn’t care about my nervousness; within a few minutes it came for the beef wholeheartedly, rising from the bottom and attacking the beef – massive trap-like jaws closing on the bait. Dad was quick and moved in with his lasso, but the old reptile seemed to see it coming – he kicked off, hitting the side of the boat with his tail. I was unbalanced already from the caiman swimming off and dragging the bait pole out of my hands, so the unthinkable happened – I fell in.
The water of the pond was full of silt, and was a murky black. My heart was thumping at a million miles an hour, and the shock of the cold darkness initially stopped me from moving, but I broke out of my trance quickly: I needed to get out of the water – and away from that caiman – NOW. I surfaced, gasping for breath as my dad yelled at me to get in the boat. He was furiously rowing the back of the boat up to me as I kicked for the lower rear entry of the dinghy. My dad seized my arm and began to pull me in when an indescribable, crushing pain enveloped my left leg. I screamed, eyes wide in agony as I realized the unthinkable had happened: the caiman had grabbed me.
The world seemed to go dim as I felt the creature go into a death roll, twisting flesh, tearing tendons and straining the bones of my left leg. I heard – rather than felt – the sickening snap of my shin breaking, and I dug my nails so deep into my dad’s arm they drew blood. The pain was white hot and boiling, and the world got louder – what with my screams, the boat engine, my dad yelling at me to hold on and the sound of my own bones coming unhinged with the beasts’ thrashing. I was blinded by my tears and knew I was losing blood fast as the water around me gushed red. The world faded in and out, alternating between an eerily silent reddish brown underwater and a screaming, terrifying surface reality. Dimly, I was aware of my dad hauling me with all of his might into the dinghy – I finally felt the reassuring metal of the boat underneath me. The last thing I heard before passing out completely was a piercing gunshot of my dad’s 9mm.
I woke up in hospital two weeks later. I’d been in a coma for several days after surgery. I learned the doctors had been forced to amputate the lower half of my leg, as the caiman had managed to almost totally sever it before my dad shot it. I’d lost a pint and a half of blood and would be permanently scarred by this horrible experience, but was otherwise OK. I and my dad both knew, however, just how close I’d come to dying.
I now have a prosthetic lower leg and still work at our zoo, but I don’t do rescues anymore. Dad also no longer uses bait to catch crocodilians, opting for more patient tactics. I still love my work, and working with these magnificent animals was a big part of my recovery. Just remember to have respect for nature, and take good care of your pets. Thank you for listening.