Fun Places to Visit
St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park (St. Augustine, Florida)
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — February 25, 2011
Founded in 1893 by George Reddington and Felix Fire, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is one of the oldest zoos in America. It is fully accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and, as its name implies, is a haven for 23 species of crocodilians, along with rare and exotic birds, mammals and reptiles such as a Komodo Dragon, King Cobra and a 21-foot python.
Feeding time for Gomek the giant Crocodile at the st. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in St. Augustine, Florida, 1990’s. Gomek died in 1997 and was replaced by another giant croc named maximo. (freeze frame from video © st. augustine alligator farm zoological park)
The American alligator is not quite as scary a critter as has been portrayed in novels, Tarzan movies, and that great low-rent reptile version of Jaws, the Lewis Teague/John Sayles film, Alligator. In that particular movie, a family visits a Florida alligator farm (not unlike the St. Augustine Alligator Farm) where the 12-year-old daughter buys a 10-inch-long baby alligator as a pet, which of course gets flushed down the toilet back in Missouri and 12 years later emerges from the sewer system as an all-devouring 32-foot-long monster.
Alligators, that thrive in the southeastern United States and eastern China, are comparatively sluggish compared to their more menacing, aggressive cousins, crocodiles, such as the Nile River crocodile and the saltwater crocodile of Australia and southeast Asia, which find humans quite tasty and eat hundreds of people a year. American alligators, by contrast, bite seven or eight people a year in Florida and since 1948 only about 18 humans have been confirmed killed by them. Alligators tend to zero in on swimmers and smaller animals such as dogs, raccoons, rabbits and skunks.
Captive American Alligator at the rookery of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and zoological park. (Photo © Stockstudios | Dreamstime.com)
Maximo Lives Up to His Name
The largest animal at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is Maximo. He’s an Australian saltwater crocodile—or “saltie” as they say in Australia—about 15 feet 3 inches long weighing 1,250 pounds (567 kilograms). In 1971 Maximo was merely an egg in Australia that was found by some aborigines along the Edward river in Pormpurraw, situated off the Gulf of Carpentaria, a shallow sea enclosed on three sides by northern Australia.
Later Maximo was sold as a juvenile to the Cairns Crocodile Farm in Gordonvale, Queensland (a suburb of Cairns), Australia’s biggest commercial crocodile farm and also now the world’s largest producer of top-grade saltwater crocodile skins and meats. Fortunately for Maximo, he didn’t end up as a handbag, pair of shoes or belt. Instead, it was here in the lush coastal mangrove wetland ecosystem, flooded and flushed by the daily ebb and flow of the tides, where Maximo grew to be his tremendous size and weight. (It was an area resembling Florida’s own great mangrove swamp that stretches from the state’s southern tip along the Gulf Coast to Texas.)
Baby American Alligator sunbathing on a rock at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm zoological park, Florida, USA. (Photo © Diana Child | Dreamstime.com)
Maximo’s years at the Cairns Crocodile Farm were spent with his mate, the slender (by comparison) 200-pound Sydney, who is nine years his junior. In the summer of 2003, the renowned Australian crocodile hunter George Craig (who runs the crocodile-themed Marineland Melanesia on Green Island near Cairns) saw Maximo and, impressed by his size and coloration, contacted the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and a sale was arranged, coordinated with the Cairns Crocodile Farm, George Craig, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and the Australian government. In late October 2003, both Maximo and Sydney were transferred to St. Augustine.
Maximo arrived with orange teeth because the water where he lived in Australia had a high level of tannins, which are astringent, bitter plant polyphenolic compounds (the source of the dry and puckery sensation you feel in your mouth when you consume unripened fruit or red wine). Crocodilians replace their teeth periodically in a very specific pattern, and whenever Maximo lost a tooth you could see it immediately, because the new tooth would be white instead of orange. As it happens, Maximo lost his last orange tooth exactly one year after being brought to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.
Dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis) sleeping on the warm sand in St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, surrounded by his brethren. (Photo © Vonora | Dreamstime.com)
Maximo and Sydney: A Love Story
In 2006 Sydney was moved into her own private enclosure, a pool at the back of Maximo’s display area. Thus, Maximo and Sydney were separated for a time, and Maximo became depressed, since the two had been together most of their lives. He lost his appetite. He became sullen. It was thought that the two crocs should be reunited (especially since the park hoped that they would produce some baby crocodiles), and so both enclosures were modified to make Sydney more comfortable. Logs were placed in front of her isolated pool, making the opening smaller so Sydney could get through to see Maximo “but he can’t come in and bug her,” according to Jen Walkowich, reptile keeper.
On Tuesday, April 27, 2010, Sydney was allowed to move in with Maximo. They soon mated (early May), then spent time nuzzling, blowing bubbles and swimming and sunning themselves together. Whenever something makes Sydney feel nervous, she flees to Maximo’s side.
Snowy Egret in breeding plumage at THE St. Augustine Alligator Farm. (Photo © Lee Hiers | Dreamstime.com)
On October 10, 2010, ten saltwater crocodile babies were born to the happy couple. The conception of the hatchlings having been captured on film and depicted on the cover of the The St. Augustine Record’s May 1 cover. Actually, 35 eggs were laid, only 12 were viable (it’s normal for most crocodile eggs not be produce babies). The remaining 10 struggled through their hard birth shells to greet the public and local reporters. (Crocodile egg shells are tougher in captivity than those in the wild, as decomposition in natural nests softens the eggs, so the reptile keepers had to massage the eggs and help the babies emerge.)
The two have had over 20 babies together, but they all went to other facilities. Finally, with one particular clutch, the facility isaved some baby saltwater crocodiles for display with the parents. Crocodiles actually make great parents, and are quite gentle with their babies, protecting the little fellows from other predators.
Tricolored Heron at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, Florida. (Photo © Ruth Peterkin | Dreamstime.com)
Watching Maximo and Sydney is quite an experience, since visitors can descend below ground level to a glass underwater viewing area.
Maximo and Sydney could live to be 80 or more years old.
Maximo is his old self with Sydney, and he apparently loves to perform before visitors. He is said to be rather punctual. If the trainers are not at his enclosure at exactly 3 p.m. to begin his routine, he starts doing things himself, including his jumps.
As they say, the show must go on.
Blue and Gold Macaw (an endangered South American native) at the St. Augustine alligator farm zoological park, florida, USA. (Photo © Lee Hiers | Dreamstime.com)
A Place Steeped in History
Since 1893, various researchers and colorful crocodilian aficionados have passed through the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. In the 1970s a young St. Augustine veterinarian, Dr. Jack Schuler, would make house calls at the facility to treat everything from a rattlesnake with a sore mouth to reptile indigestion. (Shuler would go on to found the St. Johns Veterinary Clinic and run it from 1980 to 1991.)
Also present during that time was E. Ross Allen, world-famous reptile expert and exhibitor. Born in 1908, he founded Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute at Silver Springs in 1929, where he had on display alligators, native snakes, and an “Indian Village” staffed with Seminoles trucked in from the Everglades. Ross would handle the snakes, the Indians would wrestle the gators. Ross later became more of a scientist, and made some of the first detailed studies of the American Alligator. He also milked snake venom for the purposes of research and the production of Antivenom (or antivenin or antivenene).
Famed reptile expert and exhibitor E. Ross Allen worked at the st. augustine alligator farm zoological garden in the 1970's. (publicity photo.)
Allen once invited the novelist Marjorie Kinnian Rawlings on a snake hunt. She later described the hunt with him in her book, Cross-Creek.
Allen performed for 47 years at Silver Springs, even after the opening of Walt Disney World and the gas crisis caused many local attractions to consolidate with the main Silver Springs park attraction. For a time in the late 1970s the old man handled snakes daily before wide-eyed spectators at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. He also lent his name to a small wildlife park adjacent to the Shell Factory in North Fort Myers. He went out in a blaze of glory, building Ross Allen’s Alligator Town in Lake City, Florida. (Lake City was founded as a village in 1817 by a Seminole Chief named Halpatter Tustennuggee—Chief Alligator. He gave Lake City its first name, Alpata Telophka, or Alligator Town.)
Allen’s Alligator Town was near the intersection of I-75 and U.S. 90,a combination reptile museum, alligator farm with underwater alligator wrestling, rattlesnake show, turtle garden, and wild lizard jungle, etc. However, a month before the park was to open Allen became ill and died on May 17, 1981 at the age of 73. Alligator Town limped along without him, closing in 2002.
Few people realize that the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park has long assisted academics in crocodilian research. In 1981, zoologist Walter Auffenberg, curator of reptiles at Florida State Museum in Gainesville, along with some graduate students, spent months studying the courtship habits of the more than 100 alligators in the swamp-like area of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Auffenberg and his team discovered that alligators refrain from having sex in the morning. (It was strictly an afternoon affair, he said.)
Example of ticket to St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological park, in St. Augustine, Florida, USA. (ticket courtesy st. Augutine alligator farm)
Also, from 1980 to 1983, Kent A. Vliet, then a University of Florida doctoral candidate in zoology, regularly plunged right into the farm’s pond and swam with 150 of the reptiles as he too studied the courtship behavior of the American Alligator. In the course of his study he discovered some saurian swimming etiquette: Don’t shake them up, don’t speak when in the water, and keep a long pole to poke the snouts of gators to fend off any over aggressive or inquisitive fellows who get a little too close. (Vliet eventually became Director of Biological Labs at the University of Florida.)
In the late 1980s Paul J. Weldon of Texas A&M University (later at Smithsonian Conservation and Research Center, Front Royal, Virginia) did research at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm funded by the National Geographic Society. Weldon studied the secretions of body chemicals called pheromones, the “aromas used for communication” in the animal world. He collected the chemical secretions from crocodiles and alligators in zoos, farms, and wildlife refuges all over America, extracting them from two button-shaped glands (the paracloacal glands) near the reptiles’ tail and under their jaw. Weldon thought that perhaps an alligator repellent could be developed.
More recently, Dr. Kent Vliet, and Dr. John Hutchinson of The Royal Veterinary College in England (an expert in the biomechanics of terrestrial vertebrates) visited the St. Augustine Alligator Farm to study how crocodilians (in particular Johnson’s Crocodile of northern Australia) manage to gallop when startled.
St. Augustine Alligator Farm is not just a great Zoological park; it has a great gift shop too, as evidenced by this souvenir coffee mug. (Photo © richard grigonis)
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park has also successfully bred the amazingly rare Chinese Alligator and has participated in a program to bring some of these offspring back to China.
The Centennial Celebration
In 1993, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park celebrated its 100th anniversary. By that time home to 2,700 gators and crocs, the 30-acre farm marked the occasion by opening a new attraction. The Land of the Crocodiles corralled all 23 known species of the world’s crocodilians, rare and otherwise.
Also in residence at that time was the biggest known crocodile, Gomek, 1,700 pounds and 17 feet, 9.5 inches long. He used to eat 2,600 pounds of meat a year.
Gomek was captured in 1968 by the great crocodile hunter, George Craig, who heard about Gomek from villagers on the Fly River in southern New Guinea. When George finally caught Gomek, it took six men to help hoist the crocodile into his boat. The locals were glad to see Gomek captured and shipped away, since he had figured out how to turn over canoes and eat the people who fell out.
Gomek died of a heart attack in March of 1997. He was replaced with Maximo, but Gomek is now displayed in the Gomek Forever exhibit. He has been tastefully mounted and is surrounded by an exhibit of hand-carved art from his home, Papua New Guinea.
More than a Roadside Attraction
In 1989, The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA) extended accreditation to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, and in recognition of the unique historical contributions which the Alligator Farm has made to the visitor industry in Florida and St. Augustine, on September 10, 1992, the Alligator Farm was designated a U.S. Historic District. It is listed as the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Historic District.
A Great Place for Kids
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is a great place to bring your kids. You can immerse them in the world of crocodilians and Florida wildlife very quickly, because the facility is not huge—nobody has to walk very far. Shows are presented every hour on the hour.
The Wading Bird Rookery alone is home to hundreds of wading birds that fly in to roost in the late afternoons. Herons, ibis, egrets, spoonbills and wood storks can be seen in their natural environment. These birds roost above the alligators, knowing that the reptiles will shoo away tree-climbing predators. From April through July the birds are in full breeding plumage and are building nests and raising families, all of which can be seen by visitors.
The bird collection alone boasts some species rarely seen in other zoos, including cassowary, hornbills, Cape Griffon Vultures, and Pesquet's parrots. In 2008 the zoo opened a new Komodo Dragon facility that also exhibits other reptiles from Indonesia.
In all, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is a smaller, stylish facility offering great presentations of wildlife.