Colorado Gators Reptile Park
What you expect to see in Colorado: mountains, cars with ski racks, people wearing North Face clothes.
What you don't expect to see in Colorado: alligators.
"I used to jump on their backs and surf on them," said Jay Young, general manager of Colorado Gators. "Then a big one put six big tooth holes in my shirt. If I'd fallen off, he would have bit me in half. So I said, 'I should probably stop doing that.'"
Since 1990 the Young family -- Jay is second generation -- has operated America's most misplaced alligator attraction. Over a mile above swamp level in the alpine San Luis Valley, Colorado Gators endures weather that can fall to 30 degrees below zero, with temperature drops so rapid that Jay has found gators frozen in ice.
Yet alligators flourish at Colorado Gators, because it sits atop geothermal wells. The water in their play pools is a steamy 87 degrees year 'round. Frozen gators, Jay explained, are too slow to move out of shallows while sunning themselves in winter.
Colorado Gators began as a fish farm. The alligators only arrived years later, brought in by the Youngs to eat the leftover fish. "We never intended to open to the public as an attraction," said Jay. But the geothermal water made the gators grow three times faster than normal, and the Youngs realized that tourists would pay to see their scaly garbage disposals.
To Colorado Gators' credit, it has embraced its unexpected role. It's at the center of its own alligator population explosion, boosted by abandoned pets and airport contraband (Colorado Gators claims to be the only "gator rescue" in the U.S.). Its oldest inhabitants now weigh over 600 pounds. They're still young by alligator standards. No one knows how big they will get.
Dried fish are scattered along the pathways, free for anyone who wants to toss them into a gator pit and stage their own feeding show. Every visitor gets the chance to hold a small alligator, have their picture taken, and receive a "Certificate of Bravery" notarized by the gator biting it. "The photo is for our head count," Jay deadpans. "In case someone disappears." With alligator names such as Mr. Bo Mangles, Sir Chomps o' Lot, and The Unigator ("He only bites off one finger at a time."), the attraction sends a message that visitors should stay on the dry side of the gator fences.
Unless, that is, they pay $100 for Colorado Gators' three-hour gator-wrestling class. Anyone who successfully handles a nine-foot gator is invited back every August to compete in the "World's Only Alligator Rodeo" for trophies and bragging rights.
Jay climbed into the geothermal water to demonstrate his freestyle wrestling, unencumbered by traditional Florida forms (recall his earlier surfing story). The gators, however, were more interested in napping than fighting. Jay called to them as if they were pets ("Hey, Elvis! Come on, buddy! Come and get it!") but only lady Kikoa showed any real interest, defending her nest of eggs. "She doesn't want to eat me," Jay explained. "She just wants to kill me."
Jay enthusiastically described Colorado Gators' latest project: a smoking "volcano" of geothermal water 60 feet deep, with underwater caverns. It will be built for scuba divers, who are nearly as out-of-place in Colorado as alligators. The Youngs hope to have it open in a couple of years.
The volcano will also be a home for Colorado Gators' largest non-lethal aquatic reptiles and fish, which should free up room for even more alligators. They will remain safely segregated on the other side of the park, filled with the hissing and splashing of gators and happy squeals of terrified children.