How to (help) birth a gator

08/03/2013 12:00 AM

07/31/2013 12:25 PM

“Push!” my husband urged. Flashback: Heard that from him often enough with the birthing of my own baby. But this one was entirely less painful. Well, except for the chomp on my finger.

I had, as instructed, picked off a piece of tough membrane inside the brittle, pre-pierced, shell, which resembled a chicken egg. This was more difficult than it had sounded, given the rubber gloves and my shaking hands. It’s not every day a person gets to bring a baby alligator into this world, and I was nervous.

Volunteer Scott Cooper talked our group of three “midwives” through the process. Once I could see the baby’s snout, I was to pinch its butt to break off a bit of shell at the bottom so I could push it — gently — out of the top of the shell like some sort of kid’s pop-up toy.

Allen Register, whose family owns Gatorama, had walked us, a group of 15 hatchers, through the process before we received our eggs. We learned first about how staff collects eggs from a momma gator’s nest, marks them, candles them, incubates them, determines by their chirps when they’re ready to hatch, and helps 3,200-some hatchlings through the process each year.

By the time he had demonstrated how the newborn would crawl out of its shell onto your hand, the kids in the group weren’t the only ones jumping out of their seats in anticipation.

BIRTHING PROCESS

Soft moss filled the troughs, so that once out of its shell, the baby could rest a few minutes before parents — or in my case, husband — began shooting the surrogate mother-baby portraits. Because by then, you’re as attached to that little critter as the bottom of the shell that hangs on by an umbilical cord for up to 24 hours.

Some are feistier than others right out of the shell. Mine seemed a little sluggish, so immediately I worried. Register had shown us how to contain the feisty ones, forming a sort of lasso with our thumb and pointer, so it wouldn’t fall from our hands.

He had also made sure we understood that the babies have no teeth — except for the shell tooth on the outside that they use to pierce the egg. He didn’t warn us, however, that those little jaws can still get your attention quickly if they chomp down on a finger. Which I promptly learned. Typical — that’s the gratitude of a newborn for you.

When the picture-taking was over, we placed our new charges in a tank with a few inches of water and rocks. Mine looked a bit small in comparison to others, maybe explaining its sluggishness. But given its jaw strength, I ceased to worry.

I gave one little last pat goodbye, sad. This tyke felt vulnerable and totally alien to the fearsome 17-foot crocodilians we had watched leap and chomp earlier during Gatorama’s feeding show.

Register had told us we couldn’t kiss our babies, and after what mine did to my finger, I was not so inclined. But the awww factor is undeniable.

HATCHING FESTIVAL

For 15 days during the middle of August, Gatorama hosts its Hatching Festival. This year’s festival takes place Aug. 17 through Sept. 1 at the alligator farm in the population-390 town of Palmdale on Highway 27 in south central Florida.

Four to five times each day during the festival, up to 15 hatchers, many of whom reserved their egg weeks prior (reservations are being accepted now), gather under a tent to learn more about alligators. They then don gloves (this can get messy!), and bring a brand-new gator into the world at $10 a pop plus admission.

Families and others can watch for the cost of admission. Participants receive a certificate welcoming them into the “rarefied, cracked and scrambled order of Southern Behemoths of the Swampy Lowlands.”

“For this two-week period, we will welcome over three thousand alligators into the world at Gatorama, and guests can join us to actually see these little baby alligators wiggle out of the eggs,” said Register’s wife, Patty Register.

Other special activities that day include making gator tooth necklaces and the Baby Gator Roundup Pond. Food is available for purchase during the festival.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, special Baby BreakOUT events include admission, a hatching egg and dinner for $39 adults, $24 children. Dinner includes gator gumbo, corn bread, pulled pork sandwich, cole slaw, tea and dessert — all homemade by the Register family. Admission is limited to 30 persons per night.

ONE-OF-A-KIND ATTRACTION

Gatorama has been feeding the public’s fascination for jaw-some, prehistoric creatures since 1957. It is one of about only 10 true remaining alligator farms, and the only one that has an attraction element, said Patty Register.

“We’re a small attraction, family owned and family operated,” she added. “We’re one of only 13 roadside tourist attractions still around that predates Disney.”

No other place in Florida involves the public in egg-hatching, she said. The Registers started doing so several years ago on a casual basis, until the Hatching Festival became an annual tradition nine years ago.

Any day of the year, visitors come to walk the boardwalk past ponds of gators and crocs in various sizes from juvenile to the 3,000-pound “killer croc,” Goliath.

Feeding shows educate while they thrill audiences. The mammoth crocs can jump half their body length out of the water, which they do for chunks of meat and the benefit of clicking cameras.

For $5, you can hold a baby gator for picture-taking. In the gift shop, you can buy gator meat, gator-hide purses and souvenirs you’d expect to see at a roadside attraction — a dying breed of old-Florida Americana.

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