Friday, May 13, 2022

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of a Panther-Trapping, Gator-Wrestling Wild Man

As you ride up the Loxahatchee River from its mouth in Jupiter, Florida, the canopy of slash pines and cabbage palms eventually starts to close in on you. Wildlife hides in the gnarled thickets of mangrove like a secret, given away by a splash only half seen from the corner of your eye. Everything about this place feels prehistoric, making its visitors feel like interlopers — the very thing this river has evolved to keep out. The turns become more and more hairpin, deceiving and disorienting you, as turtles and alligators eye you wearily before slipping beneath the murky water.

Nearly eight miles up the northwest fork of the river, a weathered, wooden boathouse juts out into the dark water: the first sign of human existence seen for miles. Alongside it is a dock that leads through a bamboo thicket into what was once the heart of wild Florida: Trapper Nelson’s homestead, zoo and jungle garden.

From 1945 through the 1960s, visitors from nearby West Palm Beach could take this same trip upriver and see Trapper’s wild menagerie. The biggest attraction, though, was Trapper himself. Known as Tarzan of the Loxahatchee, he’d wrestle alligators, trap wildcats, and dazzle guests with his infallible good looks and stories of the wild.

The most famous photo of Trapper was taken sometime in the late 1940s. He stands in front of a thatched Chickee hut, shirtless and strapping in swim trunks. His right hand rests casually on his waist, his left one wraps tightly around the neck of a six-foot boa constrictor. He isn’t smiling, but he isn’t displeased either. His expression is almost a dare...MORE

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