Colorado Gators / by kelsey knoche

Did you know there are gators in Colorado? Us either, until we found ourselves wrestling them...

This is no swampland, and it is a couple thousand miles from Florida, but believe it or not, Colorado is home to hundreds of gators. About four hours south of Denver is the picturesque San Louis Valley, home to a reptile rescue facility.

Due to the valley's 87-degree geothermal water, Colorado Gators Reptile Park started as a Tilapia farm in '77.  In '87 the owners bought 100 baby alligators to help dispose of the dead fish. The Gators quickly grew in the warm geothermal water and the farm was opened to the public in '90. Since then, they have become a sanctuary for unwanted and mistreated exotic pets and an education center. Along with alligators, they are home to pythons, tortoises, iguanas and other reptiles. 

One of their education programs is a gator handling class. The class serves a purpose beyond education. Alligators constantly fight so the staff needs to check them for wounds, medicate them if necessary, and possibly move them to a new pond. Since many of the Gators used to be pets, they also need to check on them to make sure they are adjusting to life outside of an aquarium, bathtub, or backyard pool.

Here we are with the 2-4 foot baby alligators. They had us step into a warm pool filled with about 10 baby gators and snapping turtles. We learned the proper technique of how to catch and pick them up, how to check for wounds, and how to medicate them. These guys were really fast and way stronger than they look! Did I mention we were barefoot? I was freaking out. 

Next up were the 5-7 foot gators. See below for a picture of their pond. With these guys, we had to walk into the water and pull them out by their tail. To medicate them we dried and cleaned their wounds and applied Neosporin. 

Last up were the over 8-foot gators. To get to these we had to walk barefoot through a murky pond (see picture below). Imagine being in 4-foot deep, no visibility muddy water with about 50 gators. Apparently, they have never attacked anyone, but when I felt something scaly bump me and swim between my legs it took all of my strength to stay still and not sprint out of the water. Our instructor just told me to stay calm and not to move... HA!

Once the 8-foot gator swimming under my legs situation improved, we watched our instructor catch one. Brave is an understatement. This guy walks up to one in the water and casually jumps on top of the gator. He then proceeds to ride the gator like a bull as it twists, whips its tail, and hisses.  These animals do not want to be bothered and they get pissed when you do. So as he is wrestling this gator, we are still standing in this water (remember there are about 50 gators surrounding us) and I am praying another gator doesn't decide to come over and check us out. Luckily they didn't care too much about us.  

We then pulled the gator our instructor caught out the water and checked her for wounds and took some pictures. 

This was one of the most terrifying and amazing experiences. I am so happy I got the chance to learn more about these incredible animals and I am grateful for people like Colorado Gators that spend their lives protecting these animals and teaching the public about them. I highly recommend this for any animal lover/adventurer.