In Florida's public schools, children are taught what to do if they need to outrun an alligator. Laugh all you want, but it's an important skill to have should you ever find yourself in the state's famous swamps. Every so often you hear about people being eaten by gators—presumably these poor souls didn't pay attention in class. (In case you're wondering, you're supposed to run in zig-zags, because the reptile's tiny legs apparently get all jammed trying to constantly change direction.)
But though a healthy fear of gators is instilled in every Floridian, Mary Thorn grew up to love them. In fact, she loves them so much that about a decade ago, she decided to adopt five of them. Four died, but one, named Rambo, remained. Today, he's grown to a robust 125 pounds—too big, the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) says, for Thorn's property. She insists, however, that taking him away from her would do more harm than good, and her dispute with the FWC made national news this week, possibly because of her habit of dressing Rambo up like a person.
To learn more, I called Thorn up to hear all about how she trained Rambo and how he acts around her dogs.
VICE: Why do you love gators, and why did you decide you wanted five of them?
Mary Thorn: My brother owns a fish pond, and whenever gators get in his pond, I would get 'em out. I was just a tomboy; I loved the animals. You want me to describe why I decided to adopt the gators? What happened was somebody had taken them out of the lake and tried to kidnap them and keep them illegally. They were confiscated by officials down here, and they were brought to the place where I worked. They were in a ten-gallon tank for the first four years of their life, in a dark closet. So nobody knew what to really do with them, so I just took them under my wing, and I raised them. My boss brought them to me––he got them from the FWC, and they didn't know what to do with them.
How do you train them to not kill you?
Well, when I got the gators, they couldn't even move their arms and legs and stuff. So they had to go through two or three years of physical therapy. Due to that, I was really close with them, so I just started training them. If they did something good, I'd give them a reward, and if they did something I didn't like, I would scold them. And they learned to do what they needed to do. They were given seven goals a year, and they accomplished most of their seven goals. [Rambo's] up to 70.
If you get a regular gator, it's gonna bite you, smack you, headbutt you, and it's also gonna try to eat you. Well, that's the first things that you work on, because believe me, if a gator grabs you, you're gonna know it. I took them and trained them not to do that, and then we started on other things like propping, where they sit on a prop, and we started doing [charity events] with them and stuff like that. They just learned that if they don't do certain things, they can't be out on the stage. And they liked to be on the stage. I make all his clothes, and he knows when the clothes go on that he's going to a charity or an event, and he stays on his props longer with the clothes on.
Rambo likes to be hugged. He's a big hugger. If you hug him, you've made his day, or if you scratch him right under the chin, you've got a new best friend.
How does he get along with your dogs?
Actually, he'll lay on top of them to watch TV. If they're just laying there, he'll go put his head up on them and watch TV. He uses them as a pillow. When the dogs are playing around and wrestling with one another, he tries to get in it. He thinks that he's a human.
Do people give you weird looks?
Definitely. I took him to the Plant City Bike Show, and that's the first time I've ever gone there. And they escorted me off the property. Then I got in touch with the mayor down there and said, "I have permits, you know?" It's perfectly legal to walk around with this animal. And the next time I went no one said a word to me. [Rambo] stayed on his motorcycle for the show, and we actually won the bike show. We do all kinds of things together. We go to schools. We do charities.
Do you recommend gators as pets?
No. This gator would not be in my hands if someone did not take them out of that lake and practically ruin their lives. And not only that, they can't live natural, like natural animals that they're supposed to be. I'm a big animal fan, and I believe they should be in their natural environment.
When do you have to say goodbye to Rambo?
[The FWC is] still considering it. That's the latest word today.
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