A Leesburg man
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-