Wrestling Alligators Harms Their Welfare And Doesn’t Help Conservation
Alligator wrestling is a form of wildlife tourist attraction in which humans physically restrain alligators. The activity has its roots in Seminole Native American hunting practices, but in modern Florida, tourist attractions involving alligator wrestling tend to be pitched as benefitting conservation. This set out to answer two key questions: what are the welfare implications for the alligators kept for these attractions, and how valid is the claim that they are valuable for conservation efforts?
For this study, the authors identified almost a hundred YouTube videos of alligator wrestling matches in Florida. To understand the welfare implications of the matches for the alligators, they coded the environmental conditions and behaviors of humans towards the alligators. To explore any potential conservation and educational benefits for the audience, they analyzed the commentary in the videos. The authors excluded wrestling matches at native facilities from this second part of their analysis, as they assumed that these facilities focused on sharing their cultural heritage; this is a separate justification from the conservation argument commonly used by non-native facilities.
Less often in the spotlight than charismatic mammals, reptiles too experience a broad range of emotions, including anxiety, fear, and distress. Being physically restrained, handled by humans, and flipped on their backs are all stressful experiences for alligators – all of which take place in alligator wrestling matches. One study cited by the authors found that physical restraint is more stressful for alligators than the use of a stun gun, and that it takes up to eight hours for blood stress levels to reduce after even a brief period of restraint.
Alligators were physically restrained in 96% of the YouTube videos, and the median time of the entire restraint period was five minutes. In addition to restraining them, wrestlers manipulate the bodies of the alligators in these matches: in the “Florida smile”, for example, the mouth of the alligator is forcibly held open. 61% of the videos showed the “Florida smile,” and roughly half of the videos showed the similar stunts of “bulldogging” (49%) and the “face-off” (52%). In 12% of videos, wrestlers poked the alligators’ eye sockets.
The authors emphasize that, as a means of sharing the traditions of the Seminole culture, alligator wrestling may be valuable. However, the majority of alligator wrestling attractions do not fall into this category. In comparing historical accounts of Seminole alligator wrestling to contemporary videos, for instance, the authors found that many of the traditional stunts were absent.
On top of the discomfort involved in the matches themselves, the conditions of captivity are uncomfortable for these wild animals. Alligators are often housed together, even though this is stressful for them, and enclosures are a poor substitute for the wild. In less than one-fifth (17%) of the videos, only one alligator was visible. Only 4% of the videos contained waterside foliage, which alligators prefer. On a more positive note, however, water was visible in almost 90% of videos (per requirements in Florida).
Welfare concerns with the captive environment and the act of wrestling mean that these attractions cause clear harm to the individual alligators. But can these harms be justified on other grounds, such as for conservation? The authors note that the IUCN classifies alligators as least concern (i.e., their numbers are sufficient that the species is not a focus of conservation efforts). This means that even if alligator wrestling promoted conservation, our efforts could arguably be better spent elsewhere, helping species in greater need.
51 of the 94 total videos included commentary on the wrestling match. Within this sample, the authors identified three themes: environmental awareness, miscellaneous education, and entertainment. Entertainment was the most common theme, and conservation the least. Less than half of the videos discussed conservation and protection. Topics within this theme ranged from how to escape or defend oneself from an alligator attack, to nuisance alligators. Some commentators recommended that audience members respect alligators by keeping their distance – a useful if somewhat ironic piece of advice, given the activities on display.
Although some commentators stated that their attraction rescues wild nuisance alligators, who must otherwise be euthanized, none explicitly connected this to alligator conservation goals. The authors also note that, given the welfare concerns involved with wrestling, it is unclear whether the alligator is better off kept in a wrestling facility or euthanized.
94% of commentary contained other educational information, including alligator anatomy (100% of videos in this theme) and the culture and history of the practice (44%). However, the authors noted factual inaccuracies in this information, undermining the educational value.
The third theme – entertainment – featured in as much as 96% of the videos. Along with advice on how to wrestle an alligator, comments that fell into this category included jokes about alligators (e.g. forcing their heads to nod “yes” or “no”); sexual comments about the alligators (e.g. jokes about wrestlers getting hickeys); and sexist jokes (e.g. if a wrestled alligator were a woman, the wrestler wouldn’t be able to keep her mouth shut).
Overall, the findings of this study suggest that spectacles like alligator wrestling are less about protecting nonhumans than about aggrandizing human dominion. The welfare of the alligators is jeopardized, and commentary aims first and foremost to entertain, not to inform. For animal advocates, the takeaway is clear. Animals are not for our entertainment, but wildlife tourist attractions prioritize audience enjoyment over captive animal welfare. Beyond what this study reveals about such attractions, it’s also worth highlighting the value of social media as a tool for analysis. In a socially distanced world, its usefulness is obvious. But as the authors discuss, content shared online can also circumvent the ethical issues that arise when studying animal welfare. Video uploads allow animal advocates to better understand the welfare implications of using animals, without financially contributing to or otherwise supporting potentially problematic institutions.