A Leesburg man

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­son Ruiter

has trans­formed from an al­li­ga­tor wrestler into rep­tile spe­cial­ist fo­cused on sav­ing an en­dan­gered snake species.

Nick Clark was 33 and com­ing off a $72,000-a-year salary when he made a rad­i­cal ca­reer change — wrestling al­li­ga­tors at Ga­tor­land for $6 an hour.

He said his pre­vi­ous em­ployer had fired him when, “burnt out,” he re­fused to sell an A/C unit to a cou­ple who didn’t need it. To Clark, grap­pling with ga­tors in­trigued him.

“I al­ways tell peo­ple that Florid­i­ans who have their A/C bro­ken in the sum­mer time are a lot scarier than al­li­ga­tors,” he said. “Peo­ple get down­right ugly.”

The Leesburg res­i­dent, 57, is now a rep­tile spe­cial­ist at the Ori­anne Cen­ter for Indigo Con­ser­va­tion in the Semi­nole State For­est in north­east Lake County. In a re­search project funded by fed­eral grant money, he’s help­ing pre­pare about 200 East­ern indigo snakes at the na­ture cen­ter for the breed­ing sea­son. It’s the coun­try’s big­gest restora­tion ef­fort of the en­dan­gered ser­pent.

Many work­ing in nat­u­ral sciences got their start with pro­fes­sional de­grees. But Clark took a dif­fer­ent path, risk­ing limb and life for Ga­tor­land crowds up to seven times a day.

“It’s easy to know more about rep­tiles than the gen­eral pub­lic,” he said of the work. “It nour­ishes the ego.”

Han­dling a ven­omous cot­ton­mouth on a re­cent week­day, he pointed to the snake’s nearby off­spring con­ceived in­de­pen­dent of any mate.

“It’s called partheno­gen­e­sis,” Clark said of the viper. “There’s some recorded cases of it hap­pen­ing in cot­ton­mouths.”

Years be­fore his job as a well­paid fac­tory ap­pli­ance tech­ni­cian, Clark had zero in­ter­est in lizards or rep­tiles. His snake­own­ing neigh­bor grow­ing up was con­sid­ered “odd” by many.

But that as­pect is its big­gest sell­ing point, he said. The pay wasn’t great, but he en­joyed the work.

“My man­ager said, ‘They’re here to see it, not you,’ ” Clark said. “And that took a lot of pres­sure off me.”

Stand­ing in a cir­cu­lar sand pit, a wrestler be­gins the show by point­ing out a kid in the au­di­ence and ask­ing the young-

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