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Primitive Reptile Helped Establish Economy

By Ernie Tiger

From the 1920s onward as the land boom exploded, politicians and developers who were eager to start settlement in South Florida began a project to "Drain the Everglades."

The actions altered the "River of Grass" forever, and left the indigenous Seminoles with a shrinking waterway. The changes caused huge depletions of their food supply - fish, deer, hogs, and crops -, that relied on the precious waters to survive. After struggling with their depleting environment, the Seminoles were slowly forced into changing their ways to survive.

They began taking jobs such as agriculture workers in the vegetable fields and road construction workers on the new highways of South Florida. They also made their first steps into the tourism industry. The early efforts were primarily wrestling alligators and performing mock Indian weddings. They also sold their colorful patchwork clothing to tourists who were eager to learn about these indigenous people who were "Unconquered" by U.S. Troops.

The wrestling of alligators or alligator wrestling, as it would be later called, would prove to be another way the Tribe would use its unique culture, the first steps towards waging their own economy. hulpahteh, the Seminole word for alligator, can be found in the southeastern part of the U.S. from the Carolina's down to Florida and Texas. Primarily making its home in fresh to brackish waters, alligators occasionally find their way to saltwater.

Most alligators can be found in Florida to Louisiana. Usually they do not exceed the length of 15 feet. But, 13-foot alligators are not uncommon, with total weights exceeding 1,300 pounds.

Alligator wrestling innovator, Alligator Joe, was the entrepreneur who perfected the practice. It originated back in 1910 near downtown Miami in Wagner Creek. There, Alligator Joe would wrestle the toothy reptiles for tourists who were interested in the battle of "Man against Beast."

By 1921, another alligator wrestler emerged who popularized the sport further. He was called Henry Coppinger Jr., or "Alligator Boy." After these performances from the founders, the popularity of the sport spread.

Other names came along, including Ross Allen, Henry "Cowboy" Billie, and two future Chairmen of the Seminole Tribe, Betty Mae Jumper and James E. Billie. As time passed, alligator wrestling was featured at every roadside attraction in South Florida by the late 1900s.

Today, that number has dwindled two a few dozen places today. But other businesses, such as alligator farming, have flourished over time. Today there are an estimated 30 alligator farms in the State of Florida. This multi-million dollar alligator farming industry generates approximately 300,000 pounds of meat and over 15,000 skins a year.

Alligator meat is also used for consumption, while the skins are used to make an assortment of items including boots, wallets, purses, shoes and briefcases. The alligator, which has made a come back since its early years in Florida, was almost hunted to extinction during during the 60s.

The alligator was finally placed on the first Endangered Species List in 1967. Federal regulations were imposed that effectively ended the illegal alligator market and helped the population rebound.

After timed passed it was speculated that the population of alligators was not as depleted as originally thought. Because of the quick and amazing come back they made, it was thought that maybe the alligator had just become more adept at eluding humans. In 1977 the alligator was reclassified from an endangered species to a threatened species. After the reclassification changes were made, the commercial market for alligators was also reopened.

This gave industries the opportunity to start the booming alligator farms scattered across the Florida Peninsula today. And, it gave hunters regulated hunting rules to go by to help keep alligators thriving.

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