For decades, alligator wrestlers working at the Miccosukee tribe’s Indian Village cultural center have performed a trick they call “Close Shave.” Seated on an alligator’s back, they hold the big reptile’s mouth open by clamping down on its top jaw with only their chin, then pass their hands through the gaping maw of the deadly beast. Jessie Cottone, the tribe’s first female alligator wrangler, does the same trick, but she refers to it with a gender-neutral name: “Face Off.”
As a kid, Cottone loved the outdoors, eating mud and playing with insects, but as she grew older, she says, her mother pushed her to become more “girly.” When she finished high school, she considered going to cosmetology school, but instead decided to work with animals. Hired at a handful of different attractions, she learned how to interact with birds, primates, reptiles and more. But she hit a glass ceiling while working for one Orlando park. “They told me women are not capable of wrestling alligators,” Cottone says, “so I quit.”
She got a job flipping burgers at the Miccosukee Indian Village, a tourist outpost that showcases the history and culture of the Miccosukee people. Members of the tribe originally belonged to the Creek Nation in what is now Georgia and Alabama. They migrated to Florida and then escaped to the Everglades to elude the federal government’s violent effort to move them to the West. After the 1928 construction of Tamiami Trail, which connected Naples and Miami, many Miccosukees moved near the new road, where they drew in tourists with their crafts and performances, like the alligator demonstration. The tribe today numbers more than 600.
One day last year, the Miccosukees’ alligator handler position opened up. Cottone’s mentor at the Indian Village, Steven “Gator Steve” Billy, asked her if she could fill in. “This is your chance,” he told her. Cottone rushed to the Village and arrived five minutes before showtime. She had never before handled an alligator. “I was shitting bricks,” Cottone says. But Billy talked her through the demonstration from the other side of the fence, and she survived.
Cottone isn’t a member of the Miccosukee tribe. She was raised in Little Havana in Miami, and her family comes from Nicaragua. (According to the tribe, that’s not unusual. Past wrestlers have also been non-natives.) Wearing white plastic sunglasses, with tattoos on her ankles and arms and a piercing in her nose, Cottone looks more like a hipster blogging at a coffee shop than a professional reptile wrestler. She keeps fans up to date with her animal exploits on Instagram.
It hasn’t been all good times. An alligator chomped down on her right arm during a demonstration last July. To recover, she drank a ton of Cuban coffee and smoked three cigarettes and did her usual show later that same day. When she went to the hospital, doctors found a tooth still embedded in her arm, and the bite has left some parts of her arm numb. But she won’t quit. Looking back on those who doubted that women could wrestle gators, she just laughs. “We sure as hell can do it,” she says.