By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
• Don't feed alligators. It's against the law in Texas. Alligators lose their natural fear of people when they associate them with food.
• Don't let pets swim or run along the shoreline of waters known to contain large alligators. Alligators are most likely attracted to dogs because they are roughly the same size as alligators' natural prey.
• Fence your waterfront property. Fencing helps protect children and pets.
• Keeping an alligator as a pet is illegal.
• Don't swim in areas where vegetation such as reeds is poking out of the water. Alligators favor this type of habitat.
• Don't swim at dusk or at night in areas known to contain large alligators. They feed most actively during the evening hours.
• If you hear an alligator hiss, it is a warning that you are too close.
• It is common for alligators to pursue top-water fishing lures. This does not constitute a threat to humans.
• If you have any questions about whether an alligator's behavior indicates aggression, contact your regional office of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. -- Josh Harkinson
Gator Country is packing them in with 125 live gators, Cajun music and a hillbilly show
Gary Saurage is demonstrating what never, ever to do at home. Grabbing a long plastic pole, he slaps the surface of a pond. Two saffron eyes appear, move toward him and dip beneath the surface. "Get ready," he says. The water breaks and a 13-foot alligator charges onto the bank. Saurage holds his ground. He reaches out his hand and smacks the beast on the nose. It opens its jaws and lets out a flapping belch. Satisfied, Saurage tosses in a leg of chicken. The mouth shuts with an echoing clap.
"That's Big Al," he says.
A thousand pounds, at least 70 years old, and surprisingly well behaved for an alligator, Big Al is the star attraction of Gator Country, a Jefferson County alligator theme park. Since it opened in March, Gator Country has been packing in hundreds of visitors every weekend with thumping Cajun music, a choreographed hillbilly show and 125 live gators, illustrating the untapped potential in South Texas for alligator tourism.
"I've said this before: Something like this could make it," says Sarah Cerrone, the founder of the annual Gatorfest party in Anahuac, who is visiting Gator Country for the first time. "Because the interest we see in one weekend...pardon the pun, they're a great hook."
Sometimes the hook is a bit sharp. Saurage displays a scar on his thumb where an alligator ripped it open. His wife, Sarah, had been bitten less than a week ago when she was feeding an alligator and tried to pet it. The Saurages know that one flick of an alligator tail could spell trouble, especially for their seven- and four-year-olds. "They can slap the living snot out of you," Gary Saurage says.
Of course, there's little chance of that happening to a casual visitor. Although children can catch small alligators with wieners on fishing line, wire fences surrounding the enclosures keep audience and alligator apart. House rules prohibit people from taunting the animals or even drinking too much. In fact, the Saurages hope visitors will take alligator safety tips home with them, as well as a better understanding of how the reptiles are an important part of the ecosystem.
Nobody seems to be having as much fun with the venture as the Saurages -- that is, if your idea of fun is almost getting eaten.
On a recent afternoon, the couple made their way with a pack of chicken onto a thin pier that lay inches above a pond. Alligator eyes poked out of the water and drifted toward them from all directions. Kong, the biggest alligator in the pond, swam to the tip of the pier within inches of Sarah Saurage. Her husband wielded a paddle and fended off an eight-footer next to his feet. Hungry gators were everywhere. "Watch out, Sarah," he said. "Kong's looking."
Soon after Kong had his fill, another large alligator approached. This time, Sarah Saurage made kissing noises. Eight-foot-long Butch was a softie. "He'll let me rub him from eyes to nose," she said. Though after being bitten a few days ago, she opted today not to take her chances. -- Josh Harkinson
A police log of what happens when an alligator strolls into town
Call received: 6/08/04, Harris County
Length: 8 feet 3 inches
Problem: At mail box
Further action: Lethal removal by TPWD (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department)
Call received: 6/6/05, Harris County
Length: 2.5 feet
Problem: Alligator located in shopping center @ front door
Further action: Live capture
Call received: 4/13/05, Harris County
Length: 8 feet
Problem: Alligator was dumped at apartment complex. It was shot twice in the head with a .45 caliber pistol.
Further action: Warden Holland confiscated the alligator from the apartment complex. It was taken to alligator hunter Doug Head and Percy Johnson.
Call received: 5/13/05, Harris County
Length: 45 inches
Problem: U of H Clear Lake had a picnic and wanted the alligator removed
Further action: Live Capture
Call received: 4/20/04, Harris County
Length: 7 feet
Problem: Alligator laying across Beltway 8 during rush hour traffic
Further action: Live capture