On Wednesday, the Aquarium welcomed about a dozen new scaly denizens to Alligator Bayou. Guests touring the Mississippi Delta Country gallery in recent days have delighted at the sight of these newly arrived juvenile American Alligators, which were sent to the Aquarium from Alligator Adventure in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
But what happened to our previous alligators, with their colorful claw-caps and habit of lolling about in sunny patches or atop floating logs?
Well, in a sense, they’ve gone home.
The Aquarium’s previous congregation — yes, that’s the proper term for groups of alligators — were sent to Chattanooga in January 2015 as part of the same loan agreement with Alligator Adventure that brought in this new batch of alligators. Last week, having outgrown the exhibit, the older, larger alligators returned to Myrtle Beach to live out the rest of their lives.
“Alligator Adventure is a large, outdoor facility where they will live a very ’gator-y life,” says Sara Web, the Aquarium’s program and enrichment coordinator. “We feel good about the time they had with us and what their life will be like from here on out. Saying ‘Good-bye’ was very bittersweet.”
The younger alligators came to the Aquarium in August. These individuals are all about two years old and measure between 30 and 44 inches, they have spent the last several weeks undergoing a quarantine period in an off-site animal care facility.
Now that they’ve been moved onto exhibit, visitors and staff members alike can start getting to know them better. Becoming more familiar with their individual temperaments is a crucial first step in the process of learning how best to care for them, Web says.
“Right now, we’re just getting a sense of who’s more shy, who’s more dominant, who’s more outgoing. More nuance will definitely come through over time,” she says. “That’s really important. Knowing them better will tell us more about their care. There are a lot of different implications to their behavior, for sure.”
Over the course of more than two years working with the Aquarium’s previous batch of alligators, husbandry experts discovered that they exhibit distinct personalities and behaviors. If, for example, Dark Green — a notoriously low-key, shy alligator — approached the island from which husbandry staff conduct feedings, staff wouldn’t have worried.
“We would have assumed he was coming up to get on the heater,” Web says.
Different alligator? Different story.
“If a different one approached us, we might be more concerned because they might have been more dominant or pushy,” she adds.
In general, caring for and working closely with more than a dozen alligators was like a two-year crash course in crocodilian care. In a sense, Web says, the Aquarium was blazing a trail by hosting such a large number of alligators AND managing them individually.
But having overcome those challenges, the husbandry staff is even better prepared and equipped to care for these new arrivals.
“Trying to do a real training program with such a large group of animals in the same space was a challenge,” she says. “We learned a ton. The whole thing was really a big learning experience.”
Training the new arrivals to respond safely to staff members and to associate their presence with positive outcomes (i.e. food) began as soon as they were sent to Chattanooga. That learning process will continue throughout their stay until the inevitable happens and they, too, are sent back to Alligator Adventure — an outcome that is still years away.
In the meantime, Aquarium staff are elated at the chance to get to know this new group of reptiles.
“Many of the keepers have been comparing it to being a teacher and getting a new class coming in,” Web says. “You’re really nostalgic and emotional with the last group, but we know that we gave them a really good start in life and that they’re really healthy and thriving as they go back to Alligator Adventure.
“Then, you get this whole new group to get to know and apply the lessons we learned the last time around. Hopefully, we’ll exceed our expectations with these new guys.”
Learn more about the newly arrived alligators during daily Smart & Scaly presentations, part of the Extraordinary Experiences slate of daily animal encounters. These programs are free with admission and begin at 11:30 a.m.