Earlier this week, we told you about a mind-blowing photo we came across on the otherwise ho-hum Alamosa County website. But the badassery isn't courtesy of the county itself. Instead, officials politely informed us that the credit belongs to Jay Young, manager of Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
Young's parents started the farm in 1977. But there were no gators back then; instead, the family raised tilapia for eating. The first alligators came in 1987 to serve as garbage disposals for the dead fish. "But people found out we had the alligators and wanted to see them, so we opened up to the public," Young says. Soon, wildlife officials caught wind of the refuge and began dropping off alligators confiscated from people who were keeping them illegally. The farm turned into a rescue operation and eventually began accepting other reptiles, including turtles, crocodiles and snakes.
Today, the park has about 300 gators. Young doesn't remember which gator is the star of the amazing photo above, but he remembers how it came about. Several years ago, he was attempting to get some "cool eating shots" of the alligators. "I was sitting in the alligator pen and feeding them right in front of me," he says. "If you sit really still, they don't see the movement and they don't realize you're there."
To swallow a fish, Young says, an alligator jerks its head upward and tosses the fish into its mouth. That's what's happening in the photo. Contrary to popular belief, the fish is not leaping to its death. In fact, it's already dead. "If you look closely, you can see (the fish) had been sitting out and some birds or something had pecked out its eye," he adds.
In all, Young says he took about fifty photos that day. "I got a couple others that were pretty cool, too -- with the blood squirting out, action shots and stuff. But I didn't imagine getting one quite that cool." The photo has gained some notoriety over the years, though Young says he's not sure how it ended up on the county's website. "That's just one of those photos we've used for years, and other people are welcome to use it, too," he says.
And what about the Captain Jack Sparrow photo we found on the park's website? "That was me," Young says. It was taken at GatorFest, an annual festival and alligator rodeo that the park hosts every August.
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"Anybody who has completed my alligator wrestling class can come back and compete in the rodeo," Young says. Yep, you heard that right; Colorado Gators Reptile Park has an alligator wrasslin' class, and certified wrasslers are invited to have at it during GatorFest. "We're really just rounding them up because they fight in the summertime," Young says of the alligators. "We find alligators with wounds and medicate them and stitch them up. So the students are helping us do our everyday work."
Tricky. So why Jack Sparrow? "Like any other rodeo, we have to have a clown," Young says. "Our job as the clowns is to make sure the wranglers stay safe and to save them if they get in a tight spot or an alligator gets a hold of them. We have to be right there next to them to save what parts we can." So far, Young says, the park's finger-loss count is one.
Check out some videos of the park and of GatorFest below. The park is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. As a bonus, watch Young, as Jack Sparrow, chatting with former Governor Bill Ritter at a 2008 tourism celebration that brought mascots including Miles and Rocky to the Capitol. Warning: It's kinda awkward.