Search This Blog

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Zoo Review: St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park

Much like Sylvan Heights, St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park is a highly specialized facility.  For over one hundred and twenty years, alligators have been displayed at the farm (which moved location once during the course of its history), making it one of the oldest tourist attractions in the state of Florida.  While there are now countless alligator farms across the southern US - some high quality, some dingy pits - St. Augustine is easily one of the best, and certainly one of the best known.  It's main claim to fame: being the only facility in the world to display all twenty-four living species of crocodile, alligator, caiman, and gharial.

The American alligator is the star of the park, and alligators can be found throughout the facility.  A pen-full of hatchlings greets visitors as soon as they enter through the gift shop, while juveniles splash around in a pool (mixed with other species) just outside the education building.  A pair of albinos lurk in nearby pools (shaded to keep the sun off of them), while forty of the biggest alligators I'd ever seen lounged in a pen across the path.  The biggest thrill, however, was the park's largest exhibit: an enormous, natural swampland, with (if I had to guess) over one-hundred and fifty (that's right 1-5-0) adult alligators swimming underneath the elevated boardwalk or lounging on the banks.  I also believe I spied an American crocodile or two mixed in with the group.  It was the mating season when I visited, and there were times when all of the water beneath me seemed to be vibrating with the bellows of courting males or the thrashing of disputing bulls.

The alligators weren't the only attraction in the swampland - the trees above them were bursting with a different kind of animal attraction... this one completely wild.  Hundreds of wading birds - wood storks, roseate spoonbills, white ibises,   and half-a-dozen species of egret and stork were roosting in the trees overhead, building their nests at eye-level with the visitors.  It's easy to understand why - no raccoon, snake, or other predator is going to reach their nests, not if it means crossing the alligator-swarmed swamplands beneath.  For every visitor I saw in St. Augustine who was there to see the gators, I swear there were two or three folks with cameras as big as me who only came to photograph birds.

Most of the remaining crocodilian species can be seen on the Land of Crocodiles trail, where the reptiles are divided geographically: the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  The highlight for me was seeing several species that I'd never had the chance to view before: the Siamese crocodile, the black caiman, the New Guinea crocodile... as well as some species that I'd only seen once or twice before.  While the exhibit was a hit with me, I could understand how it might be less thrilling for the layperson.  With the exception of a few small bird and primate exhibits, it's all crocs, and the crocs are all in largely identical displays, side by side.  If the chance every came to completely redo the zoo, I'd really suggest spreading the crocodilians out and interspersing them with a few other species.

The one species not found in the Land of Crocodiles was one of the facility's star attractions: the saltwater crocodiles, stars of a modest Australia area.  Maximo and Sydney, the pair of salties, can be seen either at ground level or in an underwater viewing bunker, which double-functions as a sort of museum of saltwater crocodiles.  Maximo, the fifteen-foot male, was imported from Australia to serve as a replacement for the park's former saltwater crocodile, the even larger Gomek.  Gomek passed away some years ago, but is still on display: his stuffed remains are visible in a nearby building.

What also impressed me about St. Augustine was the visitor experience.  There were constant feeding demos and keeper chats, many of them featuring zookeepers casually strolling among behemoth alligators.  There were opportunities to feed alligators (not fish or other meat - the farm uses a commercial dry diet).  The snack bar was a comfortable place to lounge, overlooking the gators on one side and giant tortoises on the other.  Perhaps the neatest addition to the park is the new Crocodile Crossing zipline, which allows guests to careen overhead in an arboreal obstacle course above the crocodiles (including Cuban crocodiles... notorious for their jumping abilities).

St Augustine Alligator Farm does crocodilians very well... it doesn't do a whole lot else.  There is a decent collection of reptiles (the highlights including Komodo dragons, king cobras, and the biggest reticulated python I ever saw).  The bird collection is pretty small, but the species list includes some rarely seen species.  I was especially impressed with the Birds of Africa display, where marabou storks, crowned cranes, and massive Cape griffon vultures strut and preen.  The mammal collection is limited to a few primates, none larger than the ruffed lemurs.

That's fine with me - there's something to be said for specializing.  I've been to plenty of zoos that do primates or birds well.  I've never seen a facility that has done such a masterful job with crocodilians.  Many of the species kept here have bred here, including some hard to breed ones.  The Florida climate allows animals to be kept outside in natural sunlight year round (though some of the tropical species require additional heating in the winter).  I was given the chance to see behind the scenes and watch the staff, and the work done on training and enrichment of crocodilians was astounding.  It's for these reasons and others that St. Augustine Alligator Farm is home to the Crocodilian Biology and Captive Management class, were zookeepers from around the world come to learn the most advanced techniques in crocodilian care.

No comments:

Post a Comment