Saturday, August 31, 2013

Gatorama Drama Revisited

A gator napping (really!)  
As a general rule, I don't write about the same experience twice. Rules are made to be broken, though, and hatching a baby gator at Gatorama is too much fun not to share.

Last year at this time Dorrit, Vicki and I headed to Palmdale to participate in Gatorama's annual hatching festival.  Dorrit went in 2011 (without me!), and I'd been marking time until the festival rolled around again.  It was truly an experience unlike any I'd had before, and my enthusiasm must have shone through in my posts about the outing since my friend Lindsey wanted in on this year's trip as soon as she read about it.   As it turns out, Lindsey and her neighbor Jane have become quite the gator aficionados since living at Riverwood.  Both of their homes are on the Myakka River, and they've been known to see a gator or two in their backyards.  So Jane rounded out our foursome for this year's adventure.

"My" gator 
We arrived at Gatorama with plenty of time to tour the property and watch a feeding before our birthing experience.  Uncle Wader's Pool is a new addition since last year.  For a small fee, you can take your shoes off, wade into a pool with ten small (two-three foot long) gators, and do a snatch and grab of the nearest reptile.  (Allen Register, owner of Gatorama, gave a demo first on the proper technique.)  I was all set to participate until I realized that everyone else who was going into the pool was under three feet tall.  My pride usually doesn't get in my way when there's an experience like this to be had, but I decided that I would feel too ridiculous running around picking up gators while parents snapped pictures of their small children doing the same thing.  (Jane, a sixth grade science teacher in her former life, commented that she thought the activity was probably stressing the gators out.  I wish I could say that was what swayed me, but it really was the humiliation factor.)

Another new activity being offered this year is the chance to sit on a 7 1/2 foot gator and have your picture taken. You might think that that sounds like it would be pretty scary.  Truthfully, it looked like it would be kind of lame.  Plus I thought it would be a bit cruel to impose my full body weight on another living being.  So, I passed on this as well.  On to the main event.

Having heard Allen's spiel last year about the egg collecting process didn't make it any less interesting.  When June rolls around, two person teams head out in search of gator eggs.  They are armed with a "gator stick," a nesting tray, and a sharpie.  Once a nest has been located, one person is responsible for fending off the mama gator by tapping her on the snout three times with the gator stick while the other person carefully marks the top of each egg with the sharpie before placing it in the nesting tray.  The baby gator is attached to the membrane on the top of the egg and has to remain so in order to survive.  Once the eggs are back at the ranch, Allen and his staff "candle" the eggs with a flashlight.  When they beam a light on the egg, a thin stripe appears if the egg is fertile.  If the color of the egg is the same on both sides of the stripe, the baby is alive.  Once this process has been completed, the "good" eggs are placed in an incubator for approximately 65 days until they are ready to be hatched.  Gatorama is under an obligation to the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission to retrieve 100% of the gator eggs on its property each year.  This year 3,266 eggs were put into incubation.

Jane and her hatchling
The hatching process was quite different for me this year than last.  Last year's gator was ready to break through to the other side and quickly squirted out of its shell as soon as I'd made a small exit hole.  This year's gator was a bit more reluctant to enter the world, even after I had peeled a good bit of the top of the shell away.   When this happens, you coax the gator out by squeezing from the bottom of the shell like you would a tube of toothpaste.  My gator started chirping (surely asking if I was its mother) and then made a grand entrance, detaching itself from its shell with a swish of its tail.  Generally the babies remain attached to their shells for a few days, continuing to get nutrition from the membrane, and I was sure I'd killed it.  No worries, though.  The baby had all this rather disgusting gooey stuff (that's the technical term) on it that would sustain it for a few days.   After a few photos, I carefully placed him/her (the sex of a gator is indiscriminate for quite some time) in a trough with other newborns.

Lindsey and baby
Jane was up next and she was a natural.  Her only wish was that she could have done this with her students.  (She did comment, though, that it was fun to be on a field trip and not have to be a supervisor.)   Then it was Lindsey's turn.   You probably remember the scene in Gone with the Wind when Prissy, upon being pressed into service when Mellie goes into labor, says, "I ain't know nothin' about birthin' no babies!"   Despite her year-long anticipation of the event, Lindsey had a stricken look upon her face when it was her turn.   Her hands were literally shaking as she began to poke a hole in the shell so her gator could make its debut.  As you can tell by the photo, her hatching worked out just fine.   Dorrit was up last (but not least) and enjoyed the birthing experience after taking last year off to serve as the official trip photographer.  I think the gator tooth necklace she was wearing helped her baby gator make a smooth transition from egg to world.
Me, Dorrit, and Lindsey
With that, another successful outing to Gatorama was over.  If you're in the area and this has piqued your interest, the hatching festival will be running for a few more days.  And if this isn't your year, you can rest assured that there'll be another 3000+ baby gators next year just waiting for you to come help them emerge from their shells.


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