Dear Zoo Friends,
Despite our closure over the past two months there have been several new additions to the zoo. The most exciting is the transformation of our front pond habitat to house a group of alligators.
The zoo’s pond is divided into two sections; the larger of the two continues to house our flock of Caribbean flamingos while the lower section formerly housed several species of waterfowl, including a lot of what we at the zoo call “free-loaders.” These birds included hundreds of wild mallards that made the zoo their home (more on the mallards coming in a future letter).
Zoo staff was looking to make a more exciting first impression for our guests, so about a year ago after consulting with expert colleagues, we made the decision to start the process of converting the lower pond to an exhibit to house alligators.
The species we decided to focus on was the American alligator. The decision process was rather easy. Globally, there are 23 species included in the order Crocodylia often referred to as crocodilians. This order includes the alligators, crocodiles, caimans and gavial. The majority of these species are found in tropical areas and only two are found in habitats where temperatures fall below freezing: the American alligator and the Chinese alligator. The two species of alligator are very different; the Chinese alligator is a Critically Endangered species that is found in eastern China and numbers less than 200 individuals in the wild. Reaching lengths of less than five feet, this is one of the smallest species of crocodilian and is known for its reclusive behavior. Many zoos throughout the world have devoted considerable resources to breeding this animal, so there is a stable and thriving zoo population. The American alligator grows considerably larger than its Chinese cousin. American alligators can reach 13 feet in length and are perfectly adapted for Sacramento’s climate. You might be surprised to learn that the American alligator’s range includes Florida and Louisiana but also more northern states such as Virginia, Georgia and other areas within the southeast that receive cold winters. The American alligator goes into hibernation during the winter and as long as their body slows down, they do not eat over the cold months. Their large size and adaptability to our climate made the American alligator our choice to bring to Sacramento.
American alligators are also a conservation success story. At one time, poaching led to a decrease in their population and the alligator was listed as an Endangered species. Conservation measures in the 1960s included commercial captive-farming of the species which allowed wild populations to begin to increase. The plan worked so well that in 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service announced the status of the species to be recovered. The population of American alligators within the United States is now estimated to number in the millions.
Before the arrival of the alligators, there was a lot of preparation needed to transform the lower pond to house the gators. First and foremost, the pond’s liner had eroded over the past 30 years. A new durable liner was selected that weighed several thousand pounds. Anthony Bailey, our facilities director, led his team to shape the liner and shift it in the perfect position to start the process of building the pond. It took well over a dozen facilities employees just to move the bulky liner. A new pump and filter system were also added to the pond to recirculate the water and clear debris. The facilities team also started the fabrication of safety barriers. A simple fence that was used to contain the waterfowl was not enough to keep the toothy alligators inside their new habitat and away from our guests. Alligators have been known to climb a straight six-foot chain link fence, but as they get older and heavier their climbing ability diminishes. The facilities team fabricated a fence that is placed at an angle inside the perimeter. The cantilever design prevents an alligator from climbing out.
While work was going on in Sacramento, a team of three zoo staff traveled to Florida to learn more about caring for alligators. They visited the Everglades Alligator Farm in Homestead as well as Zoo Miami. Alligators are managed much differently than other large and potentially dangerous animals, and our staff would have to learn how to work around these animals. For instance, veterinary procedures would require Animal Care staff to physically restrain these large animals. This includes working in a team using ropes to safely restrain a large alligator for inspection or perhaps transport. Our team spent several days learning these techniques in Florida so they could teach others here in Sacramento.
Just obtaining the alligators was also going to be a major task. Within the state of California, the possession of any species of crocodilian is highly regulated. The zoo’s Animal Care team worked with California Department of Fish and Wildlife to ensure the exhibit would meet permitting requirements for holding American alligators. The strict regulations are due to the fact that if alligators were to get loose within the state of California, they could potentially establish an invasive population which would be detrimental for our local ecosystem. California might no longer be known as the Golden State but perhaps the Gator State.
The story of our alligators will continue in a future letter. In the meantime, zoo staff is working on a plan for reopening. We hope to share further details with you soon.