As we drove into the San Luis Valley we started to see a series of large handmade signs advertising the presence of Alligators in this part of Colorado; a place called Colorado Gator. The amateur and run down appearance of the signs gave us some pause. It smelled like a tourist trap for sure. Later, while picking up some groceries I spotted a small newspaper they put out. I picked it up while waiting for Anne to finish checking out and looked through it. It promised you could get your picture taken holding a Gator, described some of the reptiles they had, and explained that the place was a wildlife refuge where they took in abandoned pets and cared for them. It actually looked kind of fun and worth supporting. I decided we should check it out.
How it got started
The story behind the place is pretty amusing. In 1977 a couple had heard that the San Luis Valley had a natural hot water aquifer and decided it would be the perfect place for a Tilapia Farm. The whole notion is pretty funny since the Valley is a high elevation desert in Colorado, not the kind of place that screams “fish farm.” But sure enough, the naturally hot water lets you raise fish outdoors all year round. The farm was a success but they had an excess of fish guts and waste. Their solution; obtain 100 baby alligators and fed the fish guts to them.
Soon enough people heard about all the alligators and wanted to see them. The owners also became fond of the alligators and became interested in saving those that people had taken as pets but could no longer take care of them. Pretty soon they had all kinds of refugee reptiles and exotic critters at their fish farm out in the Colorado Desert and became a popular tourist attraction in addition to being a working fish farm.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect heading out there, but what we found makes sense. It is both a functioning farm, and a tourist trap, and a kind of reptile charity house all rolled into one. If you haven’t been to many small farms but have been to a lot of zoos, it might seem sketchy at first. Everything here is more or less hand made, including the buildings. There is a lot of dirt and rust and cobwebs and it smells like a farm, aka it smells like there is a lot of pooping going on. The overall feel is homespun and ramshackle, improvising as they go to accommodate the needs of fish, reptiles, and tourists.
Admission is $15 per adult. Kids are less, and many local businesses offer free kids tickets if you buy adult admissions. You can pay extra for such entertainment as alligator wrestling lessons and they have a few snacks and plush alligator toys you can buy. At this point we were still reserved on whether this was a good idea.
Heading into the compound we went through an open area and a young guy said to us “Hey, Durango’s right over there if you want to pet him.” Looking around we spotted Durango who is a Sulcata Tortoise wandering around the yard. He’s about 50lb and the size of a small dog. I was immediately fascinated to be able to get a close up look and gently touch his shell. I’m not sure you can really pet a tortoise or that they’d appreciate it much. They have amazing skin and all kinds of cool bony protrusions. A real armored wonder. We watched him a good while and followed him as he wandered into the main “exhibit hall”.
Here we found all manner of reptiles inside terrariums ranging from small fish tanks for small critters to ten-foot square enclosures for enormous constrictor snakes. While I was struck by how dusty and cobweb-ridden the outsides of the enclosures were, the insides all looked to be well maintained and clean, or as clean as suits the animals living inside them. All the animals looked healthy and well cared for and their enclosures seemed well-suited size wise. There was quite a range of animals and many had some kind of information posted about them. Some detailing the individual animals story of how it came to be there.
Along with the animals was information informing the public that these animals typically make terrible pets and that you shouldn’t try keeping them because they can be dangerous and most people don’t have the expertise to care for them. Only a few small turtles and lizards were marked as making good pets. Here I began to appreciate that these folks really did care about these animals and were using the money they made to care and feed them rather than make the place look fancy for tourists. At zoos, I often feel uncomfortable with the enclosures animals like big cats, elephants, and other large mammals are kept in, they clearly look bored and stressed. With reptiles, I don’t get that impression. They seem pretty content and calm if a bit lethargic.
It’s Gator Time
It’s here that you get offered a chance to get your picture taken holding a young alligator. I love to touch things I’ve not touched before so I was stoked to get my hands on one. The young man pulled him out, told us his name and instructed us on proper handling. I gently took the young gator and we posed with him. After Trail also picked him up. We both marveled at how amazing he was to look at up close. Just an absolutely gorgeous critter. The handler gave us a certificate of bravery and coaxed the gator into biting it for us as a kind of signature. I asked the handler how long he’d been working here. He told me, all his life as he’s the grandson of the founders and it’s still a family run enterprise.
Moving along we got out into the area where most of the young gators are, and there are a lot of them. They live outside in pools made from the hot water aquifer so they are warm all year round. Apparently, alligators are pretty resilient to cold so long as they can get back to somewhere warm before too long. Thus despite the cold winter weather, they thrive at the farm. What I was surprised by is that all the gator pools also serve as fish ponds. So in with the gators are innumerable tilapia. All the animals looked healthy and as happy as a gator can look.
After that, we toured the fish farm proper where huge pools of fish at various ages were kept. In addition, they were growing lots of plants here, especially fig trees and bamboo. A hand written sign explained they try to re-use everything and keep a kind of full ecosystem going. The fish water and waste is used as fertilizer and the heat and humidity from the water kept the barn/greenhouse perfect for raising the plants. More and more I appreciated the thought and care that went into the place and how it really was a working farm first and foremost. They even explained what they did when alligators got sick or died. Apparently, most of their casualties are from alligator on alligator violence.
Coming out of the greenhouse you get to meet the real monsters of the park, their oldest and largest gators who get their own pens. One, Bruce Almighty is 12 feet long and weighs more than 600lb. He’s a big fat beautiful monster to be sure. Out here we also encountered roaming chickens, a pen with 3 Emus, and a couple of friendly farm cats that clearly must be Gator savvy to have survived the place.
Finally, you get to meet some of their more special gators. This includes albino alligators and a gator that was once used in a number of Hollywood movies but who is not too big and ornery to continue his career. They also keep some nice camen and a few crocodiles in this enclosure since they don’t fare as well outside as the regular gators do.
Famous Last Words
All in all, I was delighted. It was kind of pricey but I felt like the money was supporting thoughtful care and feeding of animals that other people carelessly acquired and then had to abandon. It was clear to me the family that runs the place cares about their critters and works to discourage folks from trying to keep these animals as pets. They are not breeding or farming them (except for the tilapia), just giving them a home and letting people get a look at them. I don’t fault them for making tourism a part of their business. When I learned they are dedicated to recycling and re-use the handmade signs they use to advertise are actually admirably thrifty rather than hokey. I recommend you visit if you get the chance.