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Seminole chief loses finger in alligator bout

Published Sep. 26, 2005

The chairman of the tribe was released from the hospital after surgery on his right hand.

Seminole Indian Chief James Billie was released from a hospital Wednesday after losing a finger to an alligator he was wrestling in front of about 100 tourists.

Billie, 55, had the surgery Tuesday to trim and clean the wound on his right ring finger at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood.

Billie said he made a spontaneous decision to climb into the ring during Tuesday's wrestling show at the tribe's Billie Swamp Safari tourist park in the Everglades.

The chief also suffered cuts on his middle and index fingers during the bout with the gator on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, said Dr. James Stern, who performed the amputation.

"I was reaching for both of his jaws and only grabbed one," Billie said. "He got my fingers in there and just started spinning real fast, pulling me into the water."

Billie, chairman of the 2,200-member Seminole Indian Tribe headquartered in Hollywood, started wrestling alligators at age 5, but it was 10 years ago when he last took on a gator.

The alligator Billie wrestled Tuesday was under 7 feet long, a size he always advises other wrestlers to avoid because they have sharp teeth and can spin violently.

"I broke my own rule and it got me," Billie said.

Billie said he planned to keep the finger as a souvenir, perhaps wearing it on a necklace. He also will continue to wrestle alligators, and his resolve may carry over to his own two young sons.

Billie's wife, Lesley, said their boys already wrestle alligators, and her husband's injury probably won't deter their 4-year-old. Eight-year-old Micco, however, had his thumb nicked in a bout with a gator and may give it up, she said.