Creative Nonfiction · Florida · Horror · Photography · Repatria · Spirituality · Trauma · Wendy · Zuzu Irwin

Zuzu Irwin and the Wild Gator

Gator in the wild.

Gator in the wild.
Gator in the wild.


The Florida Everglades are so riddled with reeds that the boats have huge above-water engines reminiscent of sea planes. When the propellers get going it’s loud enough to make your fillings rattle and the wind feels like it could eat your hair, rip it right from your scalp.

I found myself on the airboat, floating about a foot and half above water level, in the Dead Marsh-esque expanse of the swamps, because my mum wanted to see an alligator in the wild. She’s seen crocodiles in their habitat a’plenty, but never a gator. She and my husband were thrilled to be out in the Everglades. I, on the other hand, have seen too many horror movies to be anything but terrified. And paranoid.

We trawled the murky waters, the boat making such a ruckus it was a wonder there was any wildlife out there at all. My heart pounding as we lost sight of land, huge reeds blocking our view and inside hiding Gods only know what.

Captain cut the engine. An abrupt silence following the ringing roar of the motor. There was the gator, a primeval beast, just feet in front of the boat, swimming towards us. My heart pounding so hard I was sure I would pass out. The fact that I was filming the event likely the only thing that kept me from doing so.

Nine feet long, it glided right up to our boat, opened his grand toothed maw and hissed, letting us know who was boss. My mother had her hands over the side of the boat, just as she was told not to do, and my heart attack resumed. The reptilian creature eyed us and swam away. I would later find out that alligators can actually launch themselves from the water. If I had known that, I never would have gone at all.

Back on land, heart palpitating and hands shaking, I realized there was a pattern in my South Florida life of me doing things I have no desire to do just because it’s either that or sitting in our unfortunate retirement community home as I am 9 days out of 10. The idea of choice has taken on a whole new meaning and either way, the walls are closing in.


A few weeks later I had a dream about alligators. I was on a raft, a literal airboat this time. The water was choppy and I knew there were alligators, but the trip was uneventful.

Testing my luck, I went on a second ride. The boat capsized, me in the water. There were three other times in my life I felt as profound a terror as this: the night Wendy was murdered, the Fritzl dream, and the night I was caught on a tram in a wicked Prague blizzard, my body going into shock from the cold.

Everyone else on the boat made it to dry land, but I couldn’t reach them, deer in the headlights. And then I saw him. The Gator. Swimming towards me. I couldn’t move. I began to scream at him, hitting the water, I was not going down without a fight even if I couldn’t bring myself to move through the water. He didn’t like the noise I was making. The alligator attacked me, a snarling vicious beast. I put my arms up to defend myself as he bit and scratched and tore and I woke up. Drenched in sweat, heart pounding.

When I got back to sleep I went right back to that attack moment in my dream. I’m fighting the gator, he’s tearing apart my forearms.

I wake again, hating this fucking dream.

I go back to sleep and I’m back in the dream for a third time, only now I’m out of water. My arms are bloody, scratched, bones exposed messes. The pain is excruciating. More than anything, I’m in shock. By now, I know I’m dreaming even in my dream, and I cannot believe that an animal has actually bitten me.

For the rest of that day in waking life my arms were killing me, fingers swollen, aching, and I felt crazy out of sorts. I regularly have the most awful and vivid dreams in which I’m shot, raped, tortured, starved, chased, threatened, you name it, it’s happened. But in all that time never in my dreams has an animal actually hurt me and I’ve remained in a sleep state to experience it. Humans have wounded me, over and over. Never an animal.


I reflected that Alligator has come to signify this particular corner of southeast Florida in which I live, likely compounded by the fact that I had a terrifying-to-me encounter with one out in the wild.

Like the gator in my dream, this place is destroying me, not only physically, but emotionally. The isolation I live in on a daily basis is not unlike the vast expanse of nothing in the gator’s habitat. In spite of eating healthy, the weight of my sadness is piling on my body each day, twenty new pounds and counting. I’m surrounded by monstrous (human) creatures who only focus on the most superficial aspects of life, anathema to the people with whom I usually surround myself. As I wrote for my friend Lillian’s blog, I’m a mermaid out of water here. And the wildlife in my dreamscape clearly knows it.


There is a traditional meaning for Alligator Medicine from Jamie Sams and David Carson’s Animal Medicine cards. The keyword is Integration. “Gator shows us the value of thoroughly digesting both the pleasures and pains of life…When Gator rolls under the water with its prey its message is to roll with the punches when being attacked by life’s circumstances….Choosing to laugh when tangled in your own seriousness can immediately diffuse the stranglehold of anger and judgments, self-importance, and inflexibility.”

Contrary Alligator Medicine “signals a time to laugh in the face of conflict in order to survive…Gator’s treacherous jaws warn you not to fall prey to quick-fix solutions or schemes. If contrary Gator’s bite has severed an artery that fed you life force, a Band-Aid will not cure your present situation. Integrate stable, long-term solutions and options. If you have become inflexible or judgmental, detach from your muddied thinking or clouded feelings that have imprisoned your progress.”

Clearly, I have some work to do on the integration front unless I want to end up like my beloved Vincent van Gogh, whose birthday is today.

Have you had any run-ins with Alligator Medicine, in your dreams or otherwise?

©2013 Sezin Koehler, photo by Zuzu Irwin

2 thoughts on “Zuzu Irwin and the Wild Gator

  1. What a horrifying dream.

    I’ve been thinking about the alligator medicine. On one hand it seems to mean you have to make the best of things to survive. On the other hand make long term plans to find a solution. I think maybe you need to move. These small excursions (doing things you don’t even like to do) are a band-aid for the deeper soul problem of your unhappiness in Florida. Make the best of the present moment in anyway you can, but get busy charting a course to get out of there!

    Hope you can find reason to laugh and find a way to be less isolated. I can relate to how you are feeling.

    1. Thank you for commiserating, Lily. You are so right about the band-aids! Even when I wrote this post I hadn’t made the connection between doing things I don’t want to do just because there’s nothing else and these being a band-aid. In fact, the metaphor of a band-aid has helped me so much in these last few days think about what I’m doing and how to feel better. Thank you! I had a lightbulb moment, like when my friend Kiri talked about “holding fear’s hand”.

      And yes, you’re so right that I need to move. We’re working on it, it’s just going to take time and that’s the hardest part. The waiting.

      Thank you again for feeling my pain. It really helps the isolated feeling to know that even though I might be physically alone, spiritually I am not. xoxoxo

Comments are closed.