Sparky read an article in the Sarasota paper about Gatorama
, an alligator farm and roadside attraction here in Florida, not too far from us, and something called the Hatchling Festival
..An alligator farm is also sometimes called an alligator ranch. They raise alligators for meat, for their leather skins, and other things. All you have to do is mention the word "gator" and Sparky is all ears--WHERE? DID YOU SEE ONE? Actually, they are in our neighborhood...YUP! A small one in the pond about half a block down our street, in the hood. He (or she) is so scared of people that when anyone comes anywhere near him, he skedaddles back into the pond and submerges himself, waiting for them to go away. Sparky looks for him every day when she rides her bike.
"HOLD AND HATCH A LIVE ALLIGATOR EGG IN YOUR VERY OWN HAND!" Sparky is IN! LET'S GO! It's only 14.00 a person if you have a coupon from their website. Kids are cheaper.
So where is Gatorama? Sparky wants to know...About an hour and a half from Bradenton, in the middle of nowhere on Highway 27 in Palmdale, FL, which has nothing there but Gatorama
. It's just a hair past the middle of the state on 27, just a tad closer to the east coast of Florida. (Like those directions, folks? That's Sparky's way of describing how to get there. For better directions, check out the Gatorama website, explains Eldo.) OK, more like take exit 164 off I-75, take the second stoplight, uh, after that, I can't remember....Oh, never mind...please check the website...
The website gives you plenty of notice that this is an old, Florida roadside attraction, run by Allen and Patty Register and their son, Ben. They have a LOT of different kinds of activities you can do there. So we're thinking, ok, this is going to be a little hokey, but Sparky loves gators, so we're going to check it out anyway. The website is very nicely done. It says to Sparky that they are at least keeping up with the times with their use of technology. We get there at our appointed time at 10:15 AM (you have to make appointments if you want to participate in the Hatchling Festival, which is what we went to see and participate in today) and it was very cool!
But first--there's a 1,000 foot shaded boardwalk to gator watch.....Nothing really unusual about that...
You can see plenty of gators in several ponds...If you've never been to the Everglades and the national park there, this is a great second choice and it's a little easier to get to. Well, ok, it's in the center of the state and about two hours or less from Bradenton.
A lot of the gators were underwater today, but the owner said that there were about 50 crocodiles in the ponds, and lots more alligators. We saw plenty, and as we walked along the boardwalk, they started swimming towards us, thinking maybe it was feeding time....
|This was a BIG gator or croc, not sure which!|
Lots of ibis around feeding.....those white birds with curved orange beaks and who look like jackhammers when they are feeding....
There are gator feeding shows, but we didn't stay for that....
We came for.... the Hatchling Festival
...Sparky thinks this is about the coolest thing she has done and seen....Gatorama is a registered alligator farm and they collect several thousand eggs every year for something called the Hatchling Festival occurring in August each year. They have a special license to do this. They allow the public to come and help the alligator babies hatch. This is an EGGS-a-lent way (GROAN) to see an amazing happening.
Allen Register, the owner, gives a talk first and tells how they collect the eggs, which is part of their gator farm business. It's a dangerous job as you can imagine. In spring, when they can hear the mating bellows of the males as they rise up out of the water, they know that it's time to start collecting eggs soon. Allen has a big walking stick that the guys use to keep the mama gator from charging them as they take the eggs from the nest. They go out hunting for the eggs in pairs but never alone. His description of how they collect the eggs sounded a lot like the Gator Boys show on TV as far as how they manage to keep from being attacked by the upset mama gator. They tap the snout of the female, hold the stick on her snout and she stops and stands her ground. One guy controls her by holding the stick on her snout, while the other collects the eggs. Before they take the eggs from the nest, they mark the tops of them with a horizontal line. The embryos attach themselves to the top of the egg. They have to keep the eggs horizontal while they transport them to the incubators at the farm. If the egg were to rotate, the gator embryo would become detached from the top of the egg, roll to the bottom of the egg and die. Then they back the mama gator into the water by tapping the stick in front of her so they can leave. Allen said the most dangerous part of the job of collecting eggs is battling the fire ants which are usually found in the nest. Fire ants go to higher ground in the summer season to escape flooding waters, and the gator nests are up on higher ground. More egg collectors go to the hospital from fire ant bites than they do a gator attack (!), says the information posted at the farm.
Once they get the eggs back to the incubators, in 90 degree temperatures and 100% humidity, they have about 65 days until they hatch. The hatching time usually corresponds to the Hatchling Festival in August which they have set up so the public can view the babies hatching and actually take part in the process. Allen makes his rounds every day listening for chirping sounds in the eggs. When he hears the chirping and sees little scratch marks at the top of the eggs, he knows they are ready to come out. Gatorama collected over 3,000 eggs this year for the Hatchling Festival. For some reason, maybe because there's been more rain this summer than normal, the hatching came later. It's just getting going and there's only a few days left! Allen had over 2,000 eggs left to hatch, he said today. You call in and pick your day and time when you want to come out, and they make sure the eggs are going to be hatching before you come.
Allen demonstrated how to help the baby gator start to come out. The baby gator has been working on the inside of the shell with a little egg tooth, but Allen made it easier for him to come out by cracking the top of the shell very gently and peeling it back.
He started to peel back the shell, which is surprisingly soft and leathery feeling...It's not a hard shell. It's very rubbery. When this little guy got far enough out of his shell to start squawking...(they actually chirp, not squawk) Allen asked if we could hear the chirping. Are you kidding? These aging ears couldn't hear it until we got to hold our own gators and eggs and got really REALLY close to the little hatchling, like right up next to our ears. They chirp just like little birds.....
After demonstrating a few things about keeping the little baby gator from jumping out of your hands and plummeting to the ground, he had us put on rubber gloves and we got our own eggs and helped the babies hatch! Sparky was nervous! She was afraid she would drop one.
It's a little bloody. One little girl got a little squeamish, (and Sparky's stomach was starting to churn a bit) but not for long when she saw the head start to come out. At first, Sparky thought maybe there would be too much body fluids and blood, so she wasn't going to do it. But after seeing the baby come out of the egg Allen was holding, she swallowed her uncomfortable feelings and really got into it! (It costs 10.00 extra to hold the egg and hatch the baby gator. Well worth it!)
The babies are wrapped around themselves three times inside the shell. When they come out, they come out quietly and slowly, or they come out flipping around, chirping and excited to be here. Every one of them has a different personality, just like human babies.
When they hatch, they can swim immediately, can eat immediately, and sometimes have a little feisty attitude. They don't have any teeth yet but their one egg tooth, but they will latch onto your finger. It doesn't hurt at all. What's cool about that, is that even as a newborn, after latching onto your finger, they go into a mini "death roll" just as the adult gators do with their prey. They have that gator "death roll" thing in their genes...The death roll is where they take their prey in their mouth, and then do a circular roll by whipping the tail around and down to the bottom of the pond, river, etc. where they will feed on what they've caught. We saw the baby latch onto Allen's finger, then whip his little tail around and do the baby "death roll"! which meant a little flipover in Allen's hand. :-)
Now, Sparky's little buddy.... He took his time coming out of the egg. As a matter of fact, he didn't seem to want to come out. The other babies took a flying leap out of their eggs, and the adults and kids holding them had to gently circle their necks with their fingers so they wouldn't jump out of the egg and plummet to the ground before we could get them into the water tank. But Sparky's little gator, a little girl (you have to tell them they are ALL girls, explains E.), just waited to be helped out of her egg or just decided she was going to let Sparky do all the work, don't know which.
|Oh, my gosh, she's starting to come out!|
|She's going to jump!|
And-----IT'S A GIRL
It turns out she was a late bloomer. She had a FULL row of tiny tiny little teeth all the way around, and she apparently should have hatched about a week before.
They are all girls because the eggs are incubated at the farm at 90 degrees, which determines that the egg will become a female. Females are easier to raise in captivity and get along better than the males, so that's why the farm controls the egg temperature in the incubation area.
We put them in the water tank and watched them swim or just float around lazily. The egg stays attached to the baby by a tiny little umbilical cord for a few hours for an extra food source. After awhile, it will get snagged on something and detach, or just detach naturally.
It was an amazing and fantastic experience! Sparky HIGHLY recommends it. Well worth the little day trip coming and going to get there and see this...AWESOME!
|"Come back and see me NEXT year!"|
|"Are you my momma?"|