When Flying Squirrels General Manager Bill Papierniak strode onto the field before the June 18 game at The Diamond, shedding his clothes to reveal a wrestling singlet before straddling a 7 1/2-foot, 170-pound alligator, he was already an embattled man.
Papierniak was on the watch list of Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The organization had issued an action alert on its Web site decrying Papierniak's planned alligator wrestling before the Squirrels' home game against Pennsylvania's Altoona Curve. The alligator, Mona, was on tour with handlers from Gatorland, a reptilian theme park in Orlando, Fla., that touts itself as the alligator capital of the world.
After Papierniak's stunt, two officials from Gatorland took over, one offering educational factoids about alligators while the other straddled the animal, removing the tape from its mouth and performing various feats, opening and closing its jaws. The handlers then turned the alligator on its back to induce a trancelike state, stroking her belly until the gator peed.
Kenny Danberry, the show coordinator for Gatorland who emceed the 10-minute show, says gator wrestling harkens to the early 1900s, when owners of roving cattle herds fought with alligators for control over watering holes.
“Our job as early Floridians was to get those gators out,” whether with lassos or bare hands, Danberry says.
“An alligator doesn't belong in a noisy chaotic sports stadium,” says Lisa Wathne, a captive exotic animal specialist for PETA. Wathne says her organization received six e-mails and several phone calls complaining about the impending Squirrels show before issuing an alert the day before the game.
“This was not a pleasurable event for that alligator,” she says.
Chuck Domino, chief executive manager for the Flying Squirrels, disagrees.
“He very innocently straddled with his legs,” Domino says of the way Papierniak sat on the alligator. Domino says promotions for the event used the word “wrestling” loosely, but that the team's office received upward of 300 e-mails and voice messages criticizing the stunt. Some of them, he says, were nasty.
Domino estimates that Papierniak perched on the animal for a period lasting between 15 and 20 seconds while Gatorland officials explained that the most dangerous part of the animal was the mouth, not the tail.
“He just kind of faked like he was wrestling,” recalls city resident Jeff Linka, who says he showed up early to the game to watch the alligator wrestling. “It was really nonthreatening.”
That's not how Beth Raper remembers it. Raper lives in Oregon Hill and was attending the game with her family, after which she fired off an e-mail to Style Weekly offering a different account:
“The rotund general manager of the Flying Squirrels baseball team pounced on this animal, bounced on it like it was a leather bean bag chair, and exposed its throat by jerking its head up continually,” she writes.
“I will support my home team and continue to laugh out loud at the Flying Squirrel's animal mascot, Nutzy,” she continues. “But I will boo and scream like a nut from PETA if I see any more alligator wrestlers at the Diamond.”
That may not be an issue. Domino says the alligator show didn't reap much in the way of better ticket sales anyhow. “I don't know whether we would do it again,” he says. “We don't set out to upset any groups of people.”