Memories for just three bucks, at the gator gift shop

The Alligator Farm in St. Augustine is a quick day trip for Flagler residents â€' but if you fall in, it could cost you an arm and a leg.
The Alligator Farm in St. Augustine is a quick day trip for Flagler residents â€' but if you fall in, it could cost you an arm and a leg.
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During the holiday break last week, I was fortunate enough to witness a 600-pound alligator named Handsome gulp down an enormous, thawed, black-and-white rat.

I was surrounded by my wife and children on what I hoped would be a memory-making day trip to the Alligator Farm, in St. Augustine. We watched a gator handler dangle these large rats — about the size of small rabbits — from a boardwalk, as dozens of gators climbed on top of each other, reaching their 80-pound heads high into the air for a bite.

“I’m really hungry,” my 7-year-old son, Grant, said.

“That’s why we ate lunch before we came,” I told him. I was not about to be suckered into spending money on junk food after also paying the price of admission.

“Pipe down and watch,” I said.

The gators were fed brown pellets the size of shot gun shells to keep them healthy, but it’s even healthier for them to get the full animal, the handler said into a microphone headset, while hundreds of people gathered around the lagoon. Another rat was dropped into another gaping set of jaws.

Of course, it’s inevitable that the child wins when he’s begging for food in public. So, as we finished watching the gators, my children engaged in another feeding frenzy, scarfing down buttered popcorn from an arm’s-length sack purchased at the snack shop. The opening of the sack was only wide enough for one hand at a time, so, in their enthusiasm, they were making a carpet of popcorn on the wooden deck. This did not please me, considering I had just paid three bucks for it!

“Oh,” the gator handler said, pointing to a lump in the shallow edge of the lagoon, “there’s a rat from the last feeding. I’m sure someone will get it.”

The park is full of exhibits with every species of alligator imaginable. And let me tell you, when it’s chilly outside, these cold-blooded creatures don’t move much. Fortunately, we had my 4-year-old daughter, Ellie, for commentary. At one exhibit, she pointed to a sign and said, “This says, ‘This alligator lives here until it comes out.’” She walked away, looking proud of herself.

The sign actually said, “Endangered species.”

Ellie noted the green water in one gator pool. I asked her if she wanted to go swimming in there. “No,” she said. “There’s no swimsuits here.”

She was especially helpful at one nesting exhibit, which featured some enormous scavenger birds, including a marabou stork, which has a 9-foot wingspan. At one end of the enclosure, a life-size zebra sculpture lay in two pieces on its side with the insides hollowed out like a chocolate bunny. But instead of chocolate, these birds were treated with dead scraps of animals. Being able to find a decaying piece of meat in a fake carcass was apparently the park’s way of making the scavengers feel a little bit closer to home.

My wife, Hailey, finally saw it and said, “I think I’m going to throw up.”

Ellie found a friend at the fence — another young girl, maybe 3 years old. “It’s a dead zebra,” Ellie said, like a park ranger in training. “It’s broken.”

A grandmother grabbed the hand of Ellie’s new friend and led her away quickly from the scene of carnage.

And then finally, we saw the statue of a former park resident, Gomek, one of the largest crocodiles ever measured. Ellie liked him so much that before we had to leave the shrine-like exhibit, she quietly said to me, “I want to feed him a rat.”

As we marched around the exhibits, I loved the birds, especially. At the farm, you can get quite close to the birds in captivity, and there is a rookery where you can essentially see birds nesting in the wild.

But in the back of my mind, the goal was simple: Do not let this family outing be marred by a stop at the gift shop. It would all be ruined if any more money had to be spent.

Unfortunately, my dream did not come true, and I found myself perusing the aisles as the kids looked at alligator baubles and stuffed snakes. As a loving father, it was my job to point out the relatively cheap construction of each item they picked up and the likelihood of loss and disappointment as they ogled “authentic” alligator teeth in a bin. And then, it was my duty to step back and let them all make mistakes and learn from them. If you really want to buy that vial filled with sand and tiny fool’s gold and a miniature treasure map, be my guest. You’ll soon learn the value of a hard-earned dollar, the sweat and perseverance that goes into every —

Oh. There is Grant, standing on the sidewalk just outside of the gift shop. His eyes are starting to water. And at his feet is a small pile of sand and shells. Shards of broken glass. The $3 pirate map souvenir had already gone the way of the $3 bag of popcorn.

And as any good father would, I abandoned my principles yet again and forked over another $3 to replace the pirate-map-in-a-vial.

The tears were staunched. The day was saved. The drive home, while twinged with the twin sensations of being poorer and a little bit of having been suckered, was highlighted by sentences that began with “my favorite part was” and giggles of delight and the naming of stuffed snakes, and the planting of childhood memories.


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