When a close friend asked me to join her in a visit to her favorite zoological park in Florida, I jumped at the chance. I was curious to discover why my well-coiffed girlfriend of 50 years was so enamored with the mostly dark scaly skinned reptilians, for as the assistant reptile curator, Jim Darlington remarked, “You’re not exactly our average looking kind of visitor.”
Far more in the “average visitor” category were the gaggles of children who just poured from long yellow buses at the front door of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park.
Inside, the low bellowing rumbles I expected were absent, but over the railing before me, the sandy land mass was carpeted with huge alligators lying about in the morning sunshine. I looked over at Aud. Her eyes were teary, and her arms animated with excitement, leaving me to wonder, “Who are you and what has Florida done with my friend?”
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- You want to learn about reptilian animals.
- You like to visit zoological parks that participate in protecting wildlife from extinction.
- You want to photograph native Florida and exotic birds at the same place.
Alligator-watching at the Lagoon
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park is the only facility in the world with living examples of all 23 species of Crocodilians, including the American alligators, which take center stage in the lagoon. Despite the long name, in Florida lexicon, this facility is not a farm but a zoological park. None of the exhibits or enclosures is called a pit, as it might be where animals are housed and killed for food or their skins.
Today, two demonstrations overlapped in the Lagoon: the alligators’ scheduled feedings, and sand removal from the deep narrow meandering moat, which intersected the landscape.
I watched as one of the newest zoo keepers, Brett Rosenstock, entered to toss frozen chickens to the alligators, at the same time peppering the audience with alligator facts and sarcastic wit. Perhaps his humor was a way to hide his nervousness. After all, he was walking among the largest reptile species in the United States with only a big stick and a six-pack beer cooler of dead poultry!
At 13.5 feet in length, Bomber is the biggest American alligator in the park, caught wild when his habitat was being overrun by human development. As I watched through the lens of my camera, Bomber and a few of his pals maneuvered for chickens but when it was time for the staff to clean out the now-drained canal, they seemed to hesitate at relinquishing their claim to their territory. I recalled Rosenstock’s description of alligators: “Seemingly lazy but energy efficient.”
Crocodilians conserve their energy for when they need it; they have the strength to burst forward but not the stamina to keep going. While the keepers hosed down the concrete mote and shoveled out the sand, Darlington moved over to Rosenstock, making wide circular motions with his arms; he was indicating that they needed to herd the alligator in front of them so they could move around and finish the job. The last chicken was tossed into the waiting alligator’s wide open mouth.
Alligators, and caiman and crocodiles are apex predators, which by definition do not have their own predators. Alligators are ambush predators, which means they let prey come to them and hunt in water using their eyes, ears and nose. The alligator’s jaw only moves up and down, with no sideways motion. And, what about that big stick? They say, an alligator’s nose is extremely sensitive and usually requires just a tap to dissuade him.
On our forays out to the Rookery we passed Maximo, a saltwater crocodile. The largest of any animal in the park, he weighs 1,250 pounds. Maximo and his smaller partner have their own enclosure with a deep pool of water, though they were sunbathing on dry land this morning.
Lying perfectly still, eyes unblinking and mouths gaped open just enough to see their toothy Chiclet-grins, at first glance I thought they were stuffed toys. I moved to face them straight on through the enclosure’s glass. They were soaking in the rays through the thinnest milky white skin lining their mouths. As reptiles, crocodiles and alligators are exothermic and use outside sources, like the sun, to regulate their body temperatures.
Nesting in the Rookery Above the Alligator Swamp
The Rookery offers a study in contrasts: Snowy white great egrets soar to tree-tops above the swamp where, down below, another group of American alligators with their black leathery skin are swimming. There are pinkish spoonbills and great or snowy egrets, and later in the season, there will be herons, some with long legs or with a stubby stance. The wild wading birds fly in carrying long threads of natures’ discards to build nests and hatch their young.
The alligators and the birds have an interesting symbiotic relationship: You might not think that building a home for baby birds over an alligator infested swamp was a smart idea for nesting parents, but the alligators keep other predators, such as opossums, away from the birds: The fee they extract for this protection are the eggs and babies that occasionally fall to the ground.
Gen Anderson is the Bird and Mammal Curator in the park. In conjunction with the United State Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon of Florida, the alligator park works in the native habitat to keep it viable and invasive plant species out.
Anderson led us around to the exotic birds and introduced us to her favorite bird, a red-knobbed hornbill. He is a large colorful bird with a dynamic and personable attitude that has brought his friend a piece of fruit. The zoo is devising a nesting camera in the enclosure for this guy and his mate and for a pair of recently arrived white-crowned hornbills still in quarantine. In the wild, the white-crowned hornbills classified as threatened as a result of habitat loss.
Meeting Galapagos Islands’ Tortoises for the First Time
I was about to meet Michelle and Shelly and Dirk and Pinky, tortoises from the Galapagos Islands. To see them up close — to actually be able to touch them — well, now, it was my turn to be overcome.
Heart pounding, I walked into the enclosure, past one of the larger males munching grass, and over to the place where Michelle and Shelly were hanging out with the other big guy. I reached out to touch the shell of one and Lauren, the reptile keeper, showed us how we could scratch their necks.
Each individual island in the Galapagos has its own subspecies of tortoise. The two females came to the zoo in 1949, and are estimated to be in their 90s. Though the two males are larger, they are a different subspecies and comparative “spring chickens” who are in their 50s.
Most Dangerous Bird in the World
Tucked away in a quieter corner of the park is a Cassowary bird, an aggressive, territorial bird. Mostly solitary (except for breeding), the Cassowary can reach 160 pounds, is able to run 30 miles per hour — and is “capable of jumping five-feet high in the air and kicks lethally with their five-inch long dagger-like inner claw!” I read this as my friend was stepping up onto a bench to see above the tall enclosure fence and get a clearer photo of the animal.
Clearly this park has done a number on both my friend and me: Aud has been overcome by reptilians with big choppers and I am taken with the beauty of a flightless bird that has been labeled the “most dangerous bird in the world.”
We are at the end of a long day; I suspect Aud would spend the night had she brought her sleeping bag and I would have stuck around for the chance to hear some bellowing. Anderson had explained that bellowing primarily occurs during nesting season, although alligators are able to detect subsonic noises and the keepers have seen the alligators react to Harley motorcycles driving by. This Milwaukee native would not have minded being present for that!
- Navigating the wooden walkways is easy and benches dot the park placing visitors within easy view of wildlife demonstrations.
- Animal scents will be strongest during Florida summer’s high temperatures and humidity.
- Remember zoo park etiquette: do not lean over railings, avoid waving arms out over exhibits, and tapping the glass protecting live animals.
- Rookery birds come and go as they please. A typical nesting schedule begins in mid-February and ends in July.
- The aerial obstacle course, including a zip line, has two course levels that cover seven acres in the park.