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Colorado Gators

Posted on 2015.07.15 at 17:00
Current Location: Durango, CO
Being in southwestern Colorado, I'm now in the area covered by the Southwest USA guidebook my brother and sister-in-law gave me. It strongly recommended the Great Sand Dunes National Park, accessible from Mosca, Colorado. Well, I've done the dune thing at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. I know from experience that getting around on dunes requires a lot of energy. I don't have a lot of energy right now. I went to Mosca, but with no intention of seeing the dunes or the Wildlife Refuge. I went to Colorado Gators.

The Colorado Gators Reptile Park is so low-rent and uncool that the guidebook didn't even mention it. It's like what you'd get if you turned the reptile house at a big city zoo over to a bunch of rednecks who promptly moved it to the country and turned it into a business. It's scruffy, ungroomed, jerry-built and, well, among the signs out front (most of them hand-painted with housepaint on sheets of plywood) is one that says "This is a working farm it does smell," and that was perfectly accurate. I loved it.

I paid the $15 admission, stepped over the tortoise barrier (about knee high, it confines the roughly foot-high tortoises that wander around that first building) and immediately a staff member held out about four pounds of live snake, asking if I'd like to wear Sandy around my neck. I said yes, of course. Sandy was a ball python, beautiful, docile and, while snakes don't exactly have facial expressions, I got the sense that she was enjoying this.

"Oh. My name is Sandy," said the woman behind me.

"Sandy, meet Sandy," said the staff guy and somehow, I'm not sure how, Sandy was persuaded to wear Sandy despite being, by her own admission, terrified. The man and two boys (ages about 9 and 13) who came in with her offered no morale support but instead got out their phones and, in unison, took pictures. I think the snake was posing.

The walls of the room were lined with terrariums (terrarria?) containing smallish snakes and lizards. Next to the name of each species was a rating system for how good a pet they are, using alligator paw prints instead of stars. Five paw prints meant Great Pet. One meant Terrible Pet (Dangerous). Many of the snakes got five, but the lone iguana (which was molting, so it looked particularly decrepit) got one, with a long page of text under it about how ferocious iguanas can be. Then there was a newspaper clipping telling the story of a woman who needed plastic surgery after her pet iguana bit her on the face, accompanied by a rather gross picture. Okay. I get it. No pet iguanas for me.

Next up was another petting zoo experience: a man with a baby gator about two feet long. He took my phone, showed me how to hold the critter, then took two pictures of me with it, one with my own phone, one with the company's much better camera. Then he asked my name, wrote it on a pre-printed "Certificate of Bravery," and put the edge of the paper in the little gator's mouth in such a way that it bit down, "signing" my certificate with its tiny teeth. Then, this being a business, he ushered me over to a desk where another staff person displayed the company-taken photo of my with the gator and tried to sell me a print-out. It was a good picture. If I had a refrigerator to put it on, I might have bought it.

Then there was a bigger room full of tanks and terrariums (including one made out of an old TV). Every critter had a name, usually a very ordinary name like Joe or Annie, although there were some pairs named after celebrities. There were a pair of snakes named Lucy and Desi, another named Bonnie and Clyde. There was a green-lipped tree frog, a frilled dragon, a piranha, rattlesnakes with tiny rattles in proportion to their size, several adult turtles and a couple of monitor lizards that looked big enough, and fierce enough, to eat a chihuahua. And there were two big tanks in which gators floated, along with a swimming turtle and various fish, with windows in the sides so you could see the underwater activity.

Then the path led outdoors to the main gator corrals. There must have been an acre of chain-link-fenced pens containing ponds containing alligators of various sizes. Only a few had names, such as "Morris, the movie star alligator," On his pen there was a list of the movies he'd been in before he got too big and hard to control. Because there were many kids who had bought the two-dollar buckets of alligator chow and were throwing the round, brown lumps to the gators, many of the animals were active, eagerly chowing down on the handouts while tilapia swam around them, ignored and fearless.

Did I mention that this place is a tilapia farm? They got their first gator to eat the trimmings after they found the market was better for fillets than for whole fish. The proprietors turned out to be really good at taking care of gators and their relatives, so much so that they are now a shelter for illegal or abused large reptiles that the authorities have confiscated as far away as California, but reptiles aren't their main business. Fish farming is. There are long, winding canals where young tilapia are released to grow to market size. And there is a hatchery, located indoors in what they describe as the "Tropical Ecozone and Inflatable Biodome," a kind of rough approximation of the tropical habitat room at the aforementioned hypothetical redneck-run zoo reptile house.

In the center of the habitat are the hatching tanks, three round pools with fountains for aeration and pumps that pump water to plants on upper levels. The plants extract fish emulsion, which is nourishing to them, and release plant by-products which are nourishing to the fish, into the water which drips back down into the pools. Around these pools, the edges of the greenhouse are crowded with plants, from Swiss chard and kale (for the tortoises to nosh on) to fig trees and tomato plants to a gigantic cactus that rivaled the Fern Green Tower at Corning. (I'd have included a picture of it but, with all the other foliage, it was impossible to get a good shot.) There were also some more animals on exhibit. There were four albino alligators. (Duh, of course albino alligators can't be outside with the others. They can't take the sun.) They, like the normal gators outdoors, had fish swimming around them, but the huge (about 100 lbs) snapping turtle was in a pool all by itself.

There were also alligator eggs, resting in straw in a glass tank. The sign explained that Colorado is too cold at night for the eggs to hatch, even in summer, so they have to be kept in the tropical habitat. Did I mention that the only reason tilapia farming or gator farming is possible here is that the whole place is built on a warm spring? It comes out of the ground at a constant 87 F. That's also why there's no danger of the farmed non-native critters getting loose and establishing a feral population the way that, say, horses have. Escapees would probably be killed by the cold nights and would definitely be unable to reproduce. They can only live right here, and only with human intervention.

That's not to say there's never been an escape. Here's a story I heard at the Alamosa Valley Food Co-op, where I went to buy some tilapia after I found out they didn't sell it themselves. Jim, the main gator wrangler, brought one of the gators into town to do a talk. He needed to stay overnight and he thought he'd arranged for a suitable place for the gator to be housed, but through some misunderstanding it fell through. So he did the best he could: he duct-taped the gator's mouth shut, rolled it in a large piece of carpet and left it in his van in the parking lot of the motel where he was staying. In the middle of the night, a policewoman knocked on his door. She wanted to warn him that there was an escaped alligator in the park across the street, that had apparently escaped by busting the window of a van that was parked in the lot. He explained that it was his alligator and that he needed to check and see if it had cut itself climbing through the broken glass. She refused to believe it and insisted that he stay away from it until somebody from Animal Control arrived. Well, the Animal Control people all know Jim and so it all worked out in the end (except that the poor gator died from his cuts).

I think Jim was the guy I asked about where to buy tilapia. He explained that they were looking into the possibility of a food truck that would meet all the health department requirements, but until then, the food co-op was their local outlet. Later, when he saw that I was looking at the bowl of dried alligator scales in the gift shop, he came over and gave me this little science talk. Alligator scales aren't like, say, lizard scales, that are part of the skin. They are chunks of bone that lie under the skin and have many tiny holes. Blood vessels pass through those holes and get heated up by the surface skin when the alligator sunbathes. He called gators "living solar panels." It works so well that the Colorado Gators will even get out on top of the snow to sunbathe. And he gave me a postcard.

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