It was initially part of Everett C. Whitney’s “Burning Spring Museum” where hundreds of alligators were captured and kept in pens to entertain the droves of visitors who crossed the Matanzas River from St. Augustine traversing the Bridge of Lions to South Beach or what is now known as Anastasia Island. Included in those visitors were soldiers stationed nearby in an army encampment necessitated by the Spanish-American War. In 1937 new owners, W.I. Drysdale and F. Charles Ursina, offically founded the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Today the St. Augustine Alligator Zoological Park is part of a select list of zoological institutions recognized for the quality of their collection.
St Augie is one of my favorite cities. I love that it is saturated with the history of Florida’s beginnings as aresort destination. Considered America’s oldest city, St. Augustine’s early settlements trace back to the aboriginal Timucua Tribe and later to Spanish Colonials. Around 1513 Don Juan Ponce de Leon passed through and ultimately located a spring that could perpetuate youth. The Spanish lost the beautiful walled city briefly to the British only to regain it and sell it to America in 1821. In the late 1800’s St. Augustine captured the imaginations of visionaries Henry Flagler and his partner John D. Rockefeller who brought in the South Coast Railway and created a resort city of monumental grandeur embracing the 16th century Spanish Colonial style.
The Zoological center now has the most diverse collection of reptiles in the world including 23 crocodilian species from the Americas, Asia, Africa and a 15-foot Aussie Croc who is clearly, “The Man.” His name, Maximo, says it all.
Here’s a question for you. What’s weirder than a gumbo-eating albino Louisiana Bayou Alligator? Answer: Two gumbo-eatingalbino Louisiana Bayou Alligators. Yep, they’re there along with someone’s favorite squeeze, a 21-foot python.
Remember Puff, who we all know was the magic dragon who wore hot pink and syrupy greens and hung out with a cool guy named Jackie Paper? Puff and Paper pale when one crosses a lagoon infested with swarms of very young but formidable crocs and then stumble eye-to-eye upon an honest to goodness, tongue-flicking, tail dragging, attitude dripping Kamodo Dragon—Whoa!
Did you know the way to a Galapagos Tortoise’s heart is by scratching him behind the ear? Did you know that an alligator is capable of reasoning? According to the farm’s 16-year veteran animal keeper and naturalist, Jim Darlington, animals change with their environment. “For example”, instructs Darlington, “If I tap an alligator on the snout with a bamboo stick to make him stop and then say, “Alligator, stop” eventually he will not need the tap, but merely the command. Ok, this is an over-simplification,but that is why the park holds educational shows every hour from 10 AM to 5PM daily. My advice, don’t try this at home. But I digress.
What I waxed on about to my editor was what a unique experience the St. Augustine Alligator Farm was and that most people had no idea that the farm wasn’t just about alligators. In addition to all the things I just mentioned, and some I haven’t, is that the seven acre alligator swamp, filled with hundreds upon hundreds or Florida gators, has effected an extraordinary spin-off. The presence of massive amounts of gators is exceedingly discouraging to would-be tree climbing predators. Migratory and nesting wading birds seek out protected environments to breed and raise families. The end result is a natural and wildly populated rookery that is attracting hordes of wild migratory and home-grown wading birds.
At first I thought I was the only “pro” to show up at the photographer’s entrance that Monday morning, then a few cars started to pull into the parking lot. Doors opened. Trunks opened and the artillery came out–800 mm lenses, gyros, panning tilt tripod heads and a few giant flash heads. Matching jungle fatigues for photographer and camera were an absolute must. I’m sure they wondered howI managed to infiltrate such an elite squad but they said nothing. The red “photographers only” door was opened and we filed in. Turf was quickly established depending on the length of the lens, the girth of the tripod, and the complexity of kit.
The minute I entered the walkway that led to the Swamp and Rookery, I entered a place like no place I’d ever been. What surrounded me took my breath away. If my feathered friends heard me gasp or saw me floating with my eyes bulging and mouth agape in pure wonder they didn’t let on. It was to no one in particular that I whispered, “I want to live here.” It made no sense, of course, but I repeated it like a prayer. Slowly I became aware of the cacophony of sound. Everybody was busy. The tropical trees were teeming with glorious, majestic, industrious and graceful birdlife. Great White Egrets with long flowing plumes,green eye masks and lavender and orange beaks filled the air like snowflakes in a globe. Mothers were sitting on nests with their mate standing protectively nearby. Intent on the task at hand, they swooped in to add a twig or out to get more. Here and there a female stood over her nest of 2-3 eggs for a stretch or a scratch. Occasionally she lowered her pretzel neck to give the tiny blue orbs a gentle adjustment with her spiky bill. After a nudge here and a roll there, she settled down onto the nest leaving her great plumage to cascade over the side in a delicate lacy bunting. One of the first hatchlings was now about four days old and already demandingly playful with his endlessly patient mother. Finally, Mother decided it was nap time and gently but firmly sat down. The second hatchling, born that morning, spent his airing time trying to hold up a hopelessly flopping head.
[/caption] alt=”” width=”403″ height=”269″ />Wood storks ruled the tall oaks and banyans that dripped moss, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Some had settled into nesting pairs. The males were coming in like small aircraft time and time again, armed with twigs, building and building while the female stood in majesty owning her nest. Others were still jostling and jockeying their enormous size, shaking the branches in a cyclone chaos. They squawked and their long beaks made a wood clacking sound, as they crisscrossed their beaks in endless sword fights, in groups of two, three or more. As for me, I learned the hard way why it’s a good idea to wear a hat when under a tree full of clacking wood storks.
Oh those golden slippers! There they were; those wonderfully cocky snowy egrets! Flaring their snowflake plumery, whooshing and ducking, they communed like a pair of pearly Flamenco dancers with their trademark yellow claws secured to a spindly branch. A few were sitting on eggs but mostof the others were preening and posturing. With amazing territorial bravado three feisty snowys warned off an encroaching great white. Snowys, notorious for their verve and cheeky attitude, were fanning tail feathers, thrusting back their heads and punching their beaks into the sky when ever a low flyer came too close. As if to say, “Don’t even think about it!”
The regal tri-colored blue heron were pairing and building. One Pollyanna sat doggedly on a small empty nest with no eggs and no suitor. A novel idea, “build it and they will come.” A few cattle egrets had arrived looking like prom dates from the 50’s with “a white sports coats and a pink carnation” and soft peachy tones around their crew cut heads. A spattering of roseate spoonbills punctuated the lush green foliage with sizzling pink plumage as startling as the Queen’s roses.
How do the birds know? I’ve wondered this so many times while observing these organic aviators.When the birds stage before migration, who gives the message where to show up and when the flight date is? How do they know where the dating bar is? Is there an e-harmony.com for birds? How they get the message is a mystery. The fact that they do get the message is empirically clear. I would soon learn that the winged communities were not the only ones with mass communication abilities.
It sounded like one of the belches that 7th boys perfect. Starting low, gurgling larger and finally erupting into a bubbling crescendo. Then the rumble became louder and sounded like an outboard motor starting—a bubbling rumble. From a distant part of the swamp came another rumble, maybe a motorcycle starting in the distance. Motors were starting everywhere. “Hell’s Angels,” somebody joked. I pictured a bunch of gators wearing those funny little kerchiefs bikers wear on their heads, but what I saw next was even more startling. From the boardwalk I watched a gator below me commence aguttural rumble, gurgitating air from visceral depths, and extending a deep vibration into the inky swamp. When the vibration erupted into a full roaring bellow he intensified it by raising his neck and head, and his serpentine tail was arched skyward.
Like the baby who cries in the nursery and provokes a crying fest among all the babies, so went the gators. There they were, maybe 50 of them, bellowing and vibrating, roaring and craning. Loch Ness, the myth, had become a reality on steroids. One enterprising serpent used the distraction to snag an unfortunate egret and was making his way to the edge of the swamp with a snout full of white feathers. I thought all this bellowing and chest pounding must surely be a mating ritual, but Jim Darlington assured me that it was just territorial saber rattling and the actual mating ritual looks a lot more romantic. The gators rub against one another, and the female may roll atop the male as part of theseduction, and the nuzzling goes round and round until they finally go to the bottom for more privacy.
Sadly, I noticed that there were peanut-type vending machines where tourists could buy feeding pellets and throw them to the gators. I regretted the commercial intrusion in a place that was teeming with nature’s most elegant. I noticed a toddler whose parents had given him pellets to throw to the gators. No one but me noticed that he preferred eating the pellets himself rather than share with the gators. “You know you may grow a tail,” I teased. Somehow it made me feel better that nature always finds a way to push back. I smiled and wished I could be there when he hit the 7th grade. I’ll bet he’ll have the best bellow.
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is located at 999 Anastasia Blvd, St. Augustine, FL 32080. For more information and hours of operation go to www.alligatorfarm.com or call 904 824-3337.
Kathleen Amantea Douglas is a contributing author and professional photographer. She operates out of Amantea Gallery at the Shops of Olde Marco Village and can be reached at 239 206-1940.