String of Pearls: Just Hold Its Mouth Shut

Everglades Alligator Farm



January 2018

Yeah, just hold its mouth shut.

That’s the advice I’ve heard.  More than once.

In a hypothetical world, an alligator may attack at any time.  I live in an urban neighborhood of Pittsburgh, so it’s unlikely, but hey…  If an alligator attack happens, the prevailing advice is, “Yeah, just grab its jaws and hold them closed.”  Perhaps the advice-giver will explain why this works.

“The muscles that open an alligator’s mouth are very weak, so weak that any of us could simply use our hands to clamp down, holding the mouth shut.”

We are at the end of a long, straight two-lane road through high grasses and low trees, giving no sense of what exactly we just drove through, other than a typical arboreous area of Florida.  But here, at the end of the road, here be alligators!  Over 2000 of them, they tell us.  The Everglades Alligator Farm in Homestead.

A professional alligator wrangler once told me that an alligator has a brain the size of a peanut.  Then he embellished with this amazing fact;  only one mammal in the world has a smaller brain.  That species is known as the “alligator wrangler.”

Because of their reptilian brains, alligators cannot be trained.  They are completely unreliable and make terrible pets.  And they can bite your ass off.

But now, back to our theoretical alligator attack.  If you attempt to hold closed the mouth of an alligator, you might actually succeed, but just for a short time.  He will outlast you.  Probably 80% of this beast is made of muscle.  You must also be ready for its other talents;  the powerful neck, abdomen and tail muscles that can cause dramatic rolling about and thrashing of that body, all of which can cause you great blunt force trauma.  Hmm, dangerous.  Yes.

An alligator wrangler who works at the Everglades Alligator Farm, while carefully straddling a ten-foot long alligator, tells our small crowd of tourists a number of interesting and fascinating facts about these odd creatures.  As she maneuvers the creature about, she explains that, unlike its cousin the crocodile, an alligator’s upper teeth can be seen when its mouth is closed.  Hmm, comforting.  Adults can weight up to half a ton, can swim 20 miles per hour and can run on land at about half that speed.  Alligators will eat almost anything.  Translation:  everything.  The word alligator derives from the Spanish word el lagarto, meaning “the lizard.”  Alligators don’t usually attack humans.  Hmm, comforting.

Our wrangler, dragging and yanking the large alligator around the pit by its tail, states the obligatory, “Kids, don’t try this at home.”  I didn’t know this was an issue.

As I’ve said, there is this bit of common knowledge:  The muscles that open an alligator’s mouth are relatively weak.  The muscles that close an alligators mouth are terrifyingly strong.  To stay safe when faced with a marauding alligator, grab its jaws and hold its mouth closed.  Whoa, there’s that advice again.  May I wish you the best.

Is this real?  Are we idiotic humans actually strong enough to hold an alligator’s mouth shut?  Is this true fact or simply a widely believed bit of poppycock, gleaned from various depictions on television?

First, every animal in the world that has a movable jaw possesses muscles that are much stronger in biting than in opening up.  That’s just the way it is, and the way it should be.  We need more strength to bite, tear and chew than to release, so we are all stronger at closing time than opening.  (Although the way some people talk incessantly, it seems that their mouth-closing muscles don’t work at all.)

Anyway, is it possible to hold closed an alligator’s piehole?

I decided to call the alligator specialist at the Pittsburgh Zoo and find out for sure (not that I don’t trust all the facts you can find on the internet or from the performer who spends her days in the hot sun, in dusty pits with alligators.)  I said to the reptile specialist on the telephone, “I teach human anatomy to adults.  This week we’re learning the muscles of the head.  When we talk about the muscles that work the jaw, inevitably the question comes up about the alligators.  Is it true?  Are we strong enough to hold an alligator’s mouth shut?”

The specialist paused for the briefest moment and then fervently said, “Are you crazy!?”

This is all great fun.  Our alligator specialist brings a cute little lagarto out to the crowd so we can hold a real live baby alligator.  “Two things,” she says.  “First, hold the tail securely because even though they are small, they are powerful.  And second, don’t drop it.”

Whoops, that didn’t take long.  One of the tourists drops the little baby alligator.  Another tourist picks it up.  No one gets bitten.  Hmm, entertaining.  The alligators don’t mind.

But don’t turn your back.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t try to hold its mouth shut.

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