A corporate high-flyer has traded in her high heels and glitzy networking events to spend her days training giant alligators and handling some of America’s deadliest snakes.
For years, Shannon Williamson, 42, worked in the executive world as part of an HR company where she dealt with 700 employees daily.
Now she spends her days with her very own 3.5 metres, 250 kilo gator named Mr Cuddles – training, feeding, and even kissing the beast at Gator Country, a reptile park and rescue centre in Beaumont, Texas.
“Do people think I have lost my mind? Absolutely,” Shannon told Barcroft TV. “People think I am going though a mid-life crisis.
“Everybody was in shock. Nobody could possibly imagine that I would leave my job. I had a very powerful position and I was very accepted in the community.
“I am 42 years old. Who wants to go out and play with alligators and venomous snakes? I do.”
Her transition from HR boss to reptile expert began after she met Gator Country co-owner Gary Saurage, who opened the park in 2005, and has been catching ‘nuisance alligators’ or unwanted gators lurking in pools and backyards for decades.
“Shannon had this crazy job,” he said. “She went all around and hobnobbed with all of these well-to-do folks in and around Beaumont.
“I really never did think that a person that was doing what she was doing would give that up to come live in the mud.”
After the couple’s first date – a lunch rendezvous that ended up lasting eight hours – Gary knew he had to bring Shannon into the fold, and she eventually left her HR job in April 2017.
But it wasn’t a smooth transition. Initially, after moving onto the property at Gator Country, Shannon was wary of the alligators that called the park their home.
“The first several months of our courtship she didn’t like alligators and snakes,” Gary said.
“She wouldn’t do it. Matter of fact she’d drive right by and wouldn’t even look at them.”
But despite the initial hesitation, it didn’t take long for Shannon to fall in love with the scaly residents of Gator Country – and one member of the park in particular, Mr Cuddles, who she’s been training for the past year.
Her ‘best friend’ at the park, besides Gary, is Mr Cuddles – the colossal rescue alligator she has been training over the past year.
“Mr Cuddles loves to be rubbed and touched,” she said. “That alligator lets me give him a kiss, that alligator lets me lay beside him and take pictures. That animal loves me and I love him.
“But I always remember, that animal could do me harm if he wanted to.”
Shannon’s specific passion, besides working with her new gator friend, is handling venomous snakes – the most dangerous of which is a Timber Rattlesnake.
“I love it,” said Shannon. “Absolutely love it. When they are calm it’s not as fun but when they are moving, it’s definitely a rush. And like I said I always respect them.”
Gary admits he knows it’s only a matter of time before something does happen to Shannon – but it’s a matter of being prepared and minimising the damage.
“I mean it’s going to happen, and Shannon knows,” he said. “We talk about it all the time. It’s going to happen. This is not about if it ever happens.
Shannon’s lifestyle change hasn’t gone down well, especially with her family and friends.
“I would go as far as to say that my family was devastated,” said Shannon. “How could you go from something that you have worked so hard for, to messing with animals that can harm you?
“It took a lot of acceptance from my friends and family, but they saw my love and passion for it.”
But there’s no going back to the office for Shannon, who says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Do I miss my old career? Absolutely not,” she said. “Every day I wake up so thankful. I roll out of bed and I look forward every day to come into work.
“This is not even work to me. This is fun. This is love and this is family.”
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