“Push!,” my husband urged. Flashback: Heard that from him often enough with the birthing of my own baby. But this one was entirely less painful. Well, except for that chomp on my finger.
I had, as instructed, picked off a piece of tough membrane inside the brittle, pre-pierced shell. This was more difficult than it had sounded, given the rubber gloves and my shaking hands. It’s not every day a person gets to bring a new baby alligator into this world, and I was nervous.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Who doesn’t want to post a Facebook picture with a baby gator coming out of its shell in their hands?
- Everything about this is one-of-a-kind.
- Great for kids ages 2 and older, but animal-lovers of all ages will want to try.
Volunteer Scott Cooper talked our trough of three “midwives” through the process. Once I could see the baby’s snout, I was to pinch its butt to break off a bit of shell at the bottom so I could push it – gently – out of the top of the shell like some sort of child’s pop-up toy.
Lessons in Gator Midwifery
Allen Register, whose family owns Gatorama, had walked us, a group of 15 hatchers, through the process before we received our eggs. We learned first about how staff collects eggs from a momma gator’s nest, marks them, candles them, incubates them, determines by their chirps when they’re ready to hatch, and helps the 3,200-some hatchlings through the process.
By the time he had demonstrated how the newborn would crawl out of its shell onto your hand on its own, the kids in the group weren’t the only ones jumping out of their seats in anticipation.
Soft moss filled the troughs, so that once out of its shell, the baby could rest a few minutes before parents –- in my case, husband — began shooting the surrogate mother-baby portraits. Because by then, you’re as attached to that little critter as the bottom of the shell that hangs on by umbilical cord for up to 24 hours.
Some are feistier than others right out of the shell. Mine seemed a little sluggish, so immediately I worried. Allen had shown us how to contain the feisty ones, forming a sort of lasso with our thumb and pointer, so it wouldn’t fall from our hands.
He had also made sure we understood that the babies have no teeth -– except for the shell tooth on the outside, which they use to pierce the egg. He didn’t warn us, however, that those little jaws can still get your attention quickly if they clamp down on a finger. Which I promptly learned. Typical: That’s the gratitude of a newborn for you.
When the picture-taking was over, we placed our new charges in a tank with a few inches of water and rocks. Mine looked a bit small in comparison, maybe explaining its sluggishness. But given its jaw strength, I ceased to worry.
For 10 days during the middle of August, Gatorama, an alligator farm in the population-390 town of Palmdale in south central Florida, hosts Hatching Festival.
Four to five times each day during the festival, up to 15 hatchers, many of whom reserved their egg weeks prior, gather under a tent to learn more about alligators, don gloves (this can get messy!), and bring a brand-new gator into the world at $10 a pop, plus admission.
Families and others can watch for free. After having witnessed the fearsome crocodilians leap and chomp in the feeding show, I couldn’t make the connection between those 17-foot behemoths and this tiny creature.
Allen had told us we can’t kiss them, and after what mine did to my finger, I was not so inclined. But the awww! factor is undeniable.
Gatorama has been feeding the public’s fascination for jaw-some, prehistoric creatures since 1957. It is one of about only 10 true remaining alligator farms, and the only that has this kind of a one-on-one program to attract and involve visitors.
“We’re a small attraction, family owned and family operated,” said Allen’s wife, Patty Register. “We’re one of only 13 roadside tourist attractions still around that predates Disney.”
No other place in Florida involves the public in egg-hatching, she said. The Registers started doing so on a casual basis, until about eight years ago, when the Hatching Festival finally became a tradition.
Any day of the year, visitors come to walk the boardwalk past ponds of gators and crocs in various sizes from juvenile to the 3,000-pound “killer croc,” Goliath, plus see other local creatures.
Feeding shows educate while they thrill audiences. The mammoth crocs can jump half their body length out of the water, which they do for chunks of meat and the benefit of clicking cameras.
For $5, you can hold a baby gator for picture-taking. In the gift shop, you can buy gator meat, gator-hide purses, and souvenirs you’d expect to see at a roadside attraction -– a dying breed of old-Florida Americana.
Gatorama is located in the tiny town of Palmdale in south Central Florida, about two hours from Fort Myers or West Palm Beach on U.S. 27 about 1 mile east of SR 29. Call 863-675-0623 for information.