MOSCA, Colorado (AP) – As Jay Young rolls up his pants and wades through the murky pond, Elvis gives a throaty hiss. It looks like a pressurized water hose cleaning a barrel.
Young slaps the 12-foot-long, 600-pound alligator on the muzzle, and the gnarled-armored creature throws itself forward with its mouth wide.
âHe still wants to eat me after all these years,â Young says, deftly avoiding Elvis, an alligator his father acquired in 1987 as a little thing to help him eat heaps of fish guts.
Elvis was among the first residents of Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a geothermal oasis in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos. The San Luis Valley attraction is one of the strangest on Colorado’s tourist trophy list, drawing an estimated 40,000 visitors a year to one of the country’s only alligator refuges outside of the South and South. Texas.
There are 270 alligators spread over 80 acres in Colorado Gators, plus two Nile crocodiles and a few spectacle caimans. Young’s father, Erwin Young, bought the acreage in 1977 and began raising tilapia in 87-degree pools filled with geothermal wells. A decade later, overwhelmed by the carcasses of filleted fish, the Youngs purchased a bunch of alligators to serve as some sort of natural waste disposal.
It didn’t take long for the alligators to attract visitors, and Young’s business plan shifted away from selling fish. (He still raises fish, but as food for alligators, not for humans.) Today, Jay Young travels the country saving all kinds of alligators, pythons, turtles and iguanas.
âIt’s such a cool story with how it started and the innovation there,â says Kale Mortensen, the director of Visit Alamosa, which counts the alligator park among its best draws. âIt’s definitely a big part of our tourism economy. “
Carly Holbrook has spent 15 years marketing Colorado tourist attractions for the Colorado Tourism Board and regional hospitality offices. She always recommends stopping at Young’s Alligator Menagerie in the middle of nowhere, west of Great Sand Dunes National Park. She recalls being a teenager, posing with her siblings as she gripped a young alligator, “with slightly scared smiles,” she said.
She said she always walked out of Young’s Oasis wondering “where the hell am I?” “
âJay is a great marketer of his unexpected and wacky offeringsâ¦ and I totally agree that his character and his gator park are a la Tiger King,â she says. “It’s not something you would expect to experience in Colorado.”
Most of the alligators Young adopted, around 150, were illegal pets. They start out cute, he says, but they get past this phase pretty quickly. Same goes with Young’s 29 turtles, which can live over 100 years and reach 200 pounds.
“And they can be very destructive,” Young says, dodging a turtle wandering down a hallway heavy with glowing glass tanks filled with snakes and lizards basking under light bulbs.
One of the tanks contains alligator eggs. In over 30 years of business, Young has never raised alligator eggs. The flow of rescues is so great that there is no need to reproduce, he says. Alligators try, but there is no chance that alligator eggs will last in the Colorado climate. It’s just an experience, he says.
Exotic pet stores also offer a constant flow of newcomers. Like the pig-nosed turtle – or Fly River – that Young recently adopted when the owner of an exotic pet store in Texas died and his collection was disbanded.
âLook at those fins,â he said, plucking the quivering turtle from a pond in the shade of a fig tree planted in 1887.
Young simply refers to a 135-pound Alligator Snapping Turtle perched on a rock in a weed-covered swamp. You’re not taking Kong, he said.
Outdoors, alligators are crammed onto the banks of lukewarm ponds, a dense and dangerous mat that could feature prominently in any respectable nightmare. Young is still working on his plans to build a diving lagoon, where divers can swim separated from the alligators by a plexiglass wall.
Just about everything that happens at Alligator Park fits perfectly into the âMystic San Luis Valleyâ tourism marketing campaign. The Great Sand Dunes attract visitors, but the Colorado Alligator Park in the Valley and the UFO Watchtower on Colorado 17 – the “Cosmic Highway” – keep tourists entertained and perhaps a little longer.
âWe have lots of unique little places that people really enjoy,â Mortensen says.
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