By Joe Roberts @jrobertsjourno
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Videographer / director: Adam Gray
Producer: Joe Roberts, Ruby Coote
Editor: Sonia Estal
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 11ft, 550-pound gator named Mr Cuddles – training, feeding, and even kissing the beast at Gator Country, a reptile park and rescue centre in Beaumont, Texas.
Shannon told Barcroft TV: “Do people think I have lost my mind? Absolutely. 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’ for decades.
Gary is the lead nuisance alligator hunter for the state of Texas, which means he is called whenever a Lone Star resident finds an unwanted gator guest in their pool, pond, or back yard.
He said: “Shannon had this crazy job. 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.
Her “best friend” at the park, besides Gary, is 'Mr Cuddles' – the colossal rescue alligator she has been training over the past year.
Gary said: “She had this incredible desire to have her own alligator, so I said okay, ‘Let’s go pick you one’. She came home and said, ‘There’s the one I want’ - he’s 11ft 7in and weights 550lbs. I’m thinking, ‘Couldn’t we have started with something a little smaller?’
Shannon added: "We had an intern named Danny and for some reason he called him Mr Cuddles, I guess he looks big and cuddly, if you look at him, he looks like a Chihuahua.
“Mr Cuddles loves to be rubbed and touched. 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.”
As well as training Mr Cuddles, Shannon, who married Gary in April of this year, accompanies her husband on nuisance alligator calls, organises the park’s roadshow tours, and teaches the interns how to handle the various animals on-site.
Her specific passion, besides working with her new gator friend, is handling venomous snakes – the most dangerous of which is a Timber Rattlesnake.
This particular serpent’s bite combines both hemotoxin, which attacks blood cells, and neurotoxin, which attacks nerves.
Should Shannon get bit, she would require a complete blood transfusion as well as anti-venom to combat the deadly combination of toxins.
Shannon said: “I love it. 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 added: “You do it long enough and I promise you that venomous snake is going to get you. They are just too fast, man.
“I mean it’s going to happen, and Shannon knows. We talk about it all the time. It’s going to happen. This is not about if it ever happens.
“That bite day is coming. It all depends how you deal with it when it happens because make no mistake, it’s coming.”
Every day is clearly a potentially dangerous day at Gator Country, but the couple and their dedicated staff have a genuine love for their work.
That’s especially true when it comes to rehabilitating injured gators, some of which have had their upper jaws damaged, or in one case, shot off completely with a shotgun.
Still, it took some time for Shannon’s family and friends to accept the former HR boss’s new passion.
Shannon said: “I would go as far as to say that my family was devastated. 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.”
Gary and Shannon’s recent marriage has cemented her new position as queen of Gator Country, so there’s no going back to the office for Shannon, who says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
She said: “Do I miss my old career? Absolutely not. 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.”