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  • Lisa Parsons

Gator Land

Young Alligators

Our young nine-year-old nephew, Kieran, flew in with his dad, Larry, from Seattle Washington. They were here to visit Grandma who lives in a retirement home in Florida. During the visit Larry wanted to show Kieran some of the sights and unique things about Florida. So we all booked a tour to the Everglades Alligator Farm to get up close and personal with some of Florida’s more exotic wildlife. We were going to see Alligators; see snakes of the Everglades; and glide across the surface of grass and water on an airboat tour.

We arrived through a gate and immediately felt like we had entered a type of Jurassic Park. Besides the gateway, upon entering, there are fences and gates everywhere. My first thoughts were; what happens if the inhabitants get loose in the neighborhood. Well, not to worry, the neighborhood is right next to the Everglades and the wild gators are everywhere outside of the park. Even with the fences there are signs warning to lookout for alligators and snakes in the parking area.

Warnings are Everywhere in Florida

We entered through the store that had gator tooth necklaces, gator jerky, stuffed fuzzy gator toys, gator postcards, and gator key chains. We had to walk by all the swag to get to the desk and pick up our tickets that we paid for online.

We walked out into gator land. To our right was the airboat tour launch into the Everglades a restaurant for humans, and small pens for different ages of gators. To the left was the indoor snake. We started with the snake exhibit. Florida Everglades has over 23 species of snakes. Luckily there are only four venomous ones. We walked by glass enclosures housing a variety of snakes; King snakes, cottonmouths (aka water moccasins); and rattlesnakes. From there we visited the small gator pens.

They are so cute and cuddly when they are young

Next we went to an area where they have rescued animals that can’t be released. They have a Bobcat, two Emus, some turtles, and some parrots. They even have two fuzzy white chickens called Silkies. There are four resident Macaws. The animals are definitely the scary part of the farm. Although, I’m sure the emu could do some damage with its large sharp peak if it wanted to.

Macaw couple; Silkie chicken; Emu; Egret

Non captive Egret fishing in waterway on the farm

Gators moving in for lunch

The main attraction is a large pond filled with over 500 large alligators. There are two fences; taller fence between the guests, the handler walkway, and the pen; between the handler and the gators is a shorter fence. The large pond had gators lounging along the beach and floating in the water.

As feeding time neared, the alligators walked and swam over each other to get closer to the handler behind the short fence. The handler, a young woman, talked about gator behavior, their feeding habits, and how to approach feeding the gators without losing an appendage. She emphasized that it wasn’t if but when you would be bitten in her line of work. Then she introduced today’s menu; a bucket full of dead rats. She started by tossing some rats around and on the gators on the shore. The closest or biggest gator quickly scooped up its prize; tail hanging out of mouth, and gulped it down. In the water, the gators grabbed the rat, disappeared into the water, and then resurfaced away from the feeding frenzy to finish eating it. From the safety of the bleachers behind two fences I watched intently and imagined the horror being tossed into a pond with over 500 alligators…

Next we embarked on the airboat tour of the Everglades. An airboat, also known as a fanboat, is a flat-bottomed watercraft propelled by an aircraft-type propeller. The flat bottom allows it to ride on top the water and grass. The boat slowly made its way down a tree-lined waterway. Along the way we saw a green heron, a white egret and tree iguanas (no that isn’t a species). We passed by a tree full of hats hanging on the branches. A reminder of all those who had failed to secure their headwear before the airboat gathered speed. We exited the channel and transitioned out into the grasslands of the true Everglades.

The driver sped down the grass-lined waterway. At a wide turn he spun the boat around spitting muddy water into the air and onto the passengers. Water ran along the floor from the front of the boat the back. He sped up again to another wide area and did it again. In the grass we spotted a variety of birds as we quickly passed by. The quick tour on an airboat was all about the “thrill seeking”.

Click on right side to view two more photos.

Just a hint of an alligator, then the head, then nothing...

As we returned we saw our first wild gators. Their heads elevated just above the surface of the muddy opaque water. Behind the head was a hint of the tail. I shuttered to realize how easy it is for them to remain hidden in the water. They are ambush predators and wait for their prey. They lie motionless until motion is needed. I did not want to give them the opportunity to have one of my two dogs for a meal. I made a mental note. When the sign says, "WARNING Alligators do not swim and stay away from the water". They mean it!

Back at the farm we went to the snake show. The handler from feeding time talked about the snakes native to the everglades and brought out a King snake, which is nonvenomous for everyone to see and touch. Then she brought out a Burmese python; a non-native species introduced by the exotic animal market. That is a big cause of all the new invasive species being introduced into Florida including other reptiles and mammals. People have bought them as pets and then released them into the wild. Now they are rampant in the Everglades.

King snake and a python

The python coiled around her arms and stretched out to look for other purchase. You could see the coil around her arm tighten as she spoke about how pythons suffocate their prey to kill them. Then they eat them whole. Digesting after the fact. These pythons can eat things three times the size of their heads. This snake is about 6-7 feet long. She said they have found snakes as large to 20 feet long that can take down a deer.

Our last show was the Alligator show. The same handler pulled a large alligator out of the water on to a sandy beach that was behind a big Plexiglas wall as we watched from the covered bleachers. The gator strained to stop his progress and dug his claws into the sandy beach making her job harder. Then she sat on the gator; grabbing his snout and holding his jaws shut while she talked. Their jaws can exert 2000 pounds of pressure crushing its prey. She emphasized that they act on primitive instinct driven by their acorn-sized brains. She said you couldn’t train them like you can dogs.

A hissing sound emitted from its mouth like a cat hissing. That is the warning sign that they are not happy. The babies make a chirping sound. She said if you hear the chirping sound, run, because the mother is probably close by and she is very protective.

She finished up her show with a move that looked utterly crazy. She pulled the soft skin down underneath the snout and grabbed the nose and opened the gators mouth for us to look inside. Then she closed his jaw, pulled his head upward, and placed her chin over his closed jaw and lifted her hands off the closed jaw and lifted them into the air. Applause erupted. This gator girl had nothing over on her male counterparts in terms of guts and skill in handling gators.

She wrapped up our interaction by bringing out two young gators with their mouths taped shut for everyone to gently handle. The amazing thing is how soft they are. Their bellies are as soft as a babies butt. Even their scales on the top are smooth and soft. That was completely in contrast with how they look and what I had expected.

The Everglades Alligator Farm mixes old school circus show with education about the species that reside in their park. It is a great introduction to species that most of us hope we will not encounter up close and personal in the wild; but really need to understand to safely live with them and understand the role they play in the ecosystem of the Everglades.

For more information

Another option is a nonprofit dedicated to the environment, conservation, and education called Flamingo Gardens, Botanical Gardens and Everglades Wildlife Sanctuary. I'm going to visit it next week.

If you want to see Alligators in the wild, visit the Royal Palm / Anhinga Trails. The trails are located just inside the Everglades National Park entrance, 11 miles from the Alligator farm.

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