Sure, lots of people in St. Augustine are picking up branches and leaves after Hurricane Matthew blew through town. But only a few are doing it surrounded by alligators.
That’s what Jim Darlington and Amie Mercado were doing on Sunday, raking up debris in an alligator pit with the enormous reptiles just a couple of feet away, including one who opened its mouth wide as Mercado approached. That was part of the unusual cleanup at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, where trees and limbs fell into alligator lagoons and crocodile pools, and enormous African storks were taken out of the bathrooms where they rode out the hurricane.
All in all, the zoo — one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions and the only place in the world that displays every species of crocodilian — fared well during the storm. However, fears of what could have been were certainly on people’s minds.
“We were all hunkered down listening to the news, and of course everybody is on social media, and sure enough a rumor started that there are alligators out — hundreds of alligators were out,” Darlington said, who said the 123-year-old zoo was inspected by state wildlife officials immediately after the storm passed and before employees were allowed back in. “The walls were still standing. There weren’t alligators running around.”
To prepare for the storm, cobras and other venomous snakes put in drawstring bags, placed in secure containers and then those containers were placed in other containers. Storks were rounded up and placed in bathrooms. Parrots and other birds were caged and alligator hatchlings were crated and placed in a secure building.
“We had to get very creative with where we put animals to make sure they were in the best housing condition for 48 hours that we could possibly give them,” said Gen Anderson, the zoo’s bird and mammal curator.
Storks were put in the bathrooms, where sinks were left dripping.
“Each stork was in a separate bathroom, the floors are really easy to clean and they had a water source. They seemed comfortable,” Anderson said.
Crocodiles and alligators weren’t moved — but the water levels in lagoons and pools were lowered by half to make sure flooding didn’t get too high. Darlington said the surge ended up a bit higher than he expected, but no animals escaped.
“They just stay hunkered down,” Darlington said. “The animals just stay in the pools. In bad weather, they’re not out running around freaking out like a bunch of ostriches or something, they just want to stay in the water.”
The biggest hit to the zoo was its zip line, which visitors take to zoom over the alligators and crocodiles, dipping down to within about 30 feet of the creatures. Several limbs where the lines run came down. While the zoo hopes to open Tuesday, the zip line will take longer to repair.