This Bystander at a Reptile Center Wrestled an Alligator to Save Its Trainer
A spectator at a reptile exhibit became part of the show when the star attraction attacked its handler.
Donnie Wiseman almost didn’t go to his niece’s fifth birthday party last August. He was worn out after working long hours at his construction job. But the party was being held at Scales and Tails Utah, a reptile and bird center in suburban Salt Lake City. Ever since childhood, Wiseman has been infatuated with reptiles. “They’re now the closest thing we have to a dinosaur,” he says. So, he skipped a nap and went with his wife and six-year-old stepson.
When they arrived at Scales and Tails, they were led to a small indoor area with a pool of water surrounded by nine-foot-tall viewing windows. Inside was the center’s star attraction, an eight-foot-long, 150-pound alligator named Darthgator. He swam around the pool before resting his head on a two-foot-wide platform. It was feeding time, and the hungry gator was staring expectantly through the glass door at his trainer, Lindsay Bull.
Kim Raff for Reader’s Digest
For safety’s sake, Bull, 31, wanted Darth off the ledge before beginning the show. Entering the enclosure, she held out an arm and yelled, “Back!” Uncharacteristically, Darthgator responded by snapping open his jaw to reveal all 80 of his teeth.
Outside the enclosure, awestruck kids pressed their faces against the windows. Wiseman was right there with them, eager for the show to start.
To get Darthgator back in the water, Bull placed her left hand under his jaw and tried to manually scoot him backward, a technical move she’d performed before. But today, Darth wasn’t having it. He rolled his head to the side, surprising Bull. Her hand slipped out from under his jaw, and Darth clamped down on it.
An alligator’s bite measures 2,980 pounds of pressure per square inch (psi). To put that in perspective, a lion’s bite has a psi of 1,000. So Darth would have had little trouble dragging Bull into the pool of water. She knew she couldn’t stop him from going into a death roll, a dreaded maneuver where alligators spin rapidly to subdue their prey, so she allowed herself to be pulled into the pool.
Outside the enclosure, some wondered if this was part of the show. Not Wiseman. Sensing something was wrong, he threw open the glass door and climbed inside.
“Jump on his back!” Bull gasped. Wiseman leaped from the platform to straddle the gator’s back, then lay flat, pressing down with all of his 180-pound body weight.
“Push your fists into the top of his snout!” said Bull. Wiseman did as he was told.
Kim Raff for Reader’s Digest
Keeping Darth’s mouth shut shifted the power dynamic, and the gator suddenly went from predator to prey. “With Donnie on his back, I knew Darth would eventually let me go,” says Bull. For the next minute or two, they waited. When Darthgator finally eased his grip, Bull quickly pulled her hand out of his mouth and was helped from the enclosure by a bystander.
That left Wiseman alone in the tank atop the alligator. Bull calmly shouted directions: “Move your hands from his snout to his neck! Sit up, then push off from his back to stand and get to the platform!” Wiseman cautiously sat up. But in releasing some of the pressure from Darth’s back, the power dynamic shifted again, and Darthgator began to thrash. Wiseman leaped off him and onto the platform, scrambling out of the enclosure.
Bull received 38 stitches on her hand and was treated for a torn wrist tendon and a chip in her thumb bone. Though recovered, she hasn’t stopped thinking about Wiseman. “He reacted to a situation he didn’t have to react to,” she says.
Aside from a few scratches, Wiseman was more shaken than injured. He admits that during his time astride the alligator, a thought kept popping into his mind: “One mistake, and I’ll be a statistic.” Still, he says, “I’m just glad I was there.”