Alligator Farm reptile charmers accept risky job

By Emily Hoover |
Photos and captions by Angela Daidone

For Jim Darlington, assistant curator of reptiles at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, facing danger on a daily basis is just part of the job.

“When you know what you’re doing, you can put yourself in danger,” Darlington, who has worked at the zoological park for 17 years, said. “When I’m in [the alligator lagoon] working with the animals, I always have to be on my toes.”

According to the Alligator Farm website, the St. Augustine park was established in 1893 by Felix Fire and George Reddington—two Florida men who enjoyed collecting alligators on Anastasia Island. In addition to housing American and Chinese alligators, the park also features exhibits of exotic birds, monkeys, turtles, snakes and 23 species of crocodiles.

Darlington said the importance of the Alligator Farm lies in its ability to entertain and educate visitors about “mysterious and dangerous animals” without scaring them or making the alligators participate in “unnatural behavior.”

The venomous king cobra blends into the colors of its glass container exhibit at the Alligator Farm

But after news broke of a venomous Egyptian cobra’s escape from an enclosure in the Bronx Zoo on March 26, questions have surfaced about the dangers of keeping deadly animals in captivity.

“If I had worked there, it would have been found sooner,” Darlington said. “I would have found that sucker. Snakes have nothing but time and are built for escaping, based on their movement. If you are going to lose something, not a cobra.”

The adolescent cobra was found on March 31 “coiled in a corner of the Reptile House” near the enclosure from which it escaped, the New York Daily News reported. Zoo officials told the Daily News the snake had escaped from “a fiberglass box with a sliding glass front on Friday when no one was around.” Officials closed the reptile portion of the zoo for six days.

Darlington, who has owned venomous snakes, lizards and small crocodiles, said zookeepers made the right decision to close the reptile house.

“Sometimes reptiles will escape from containers and aquariums,” he said. ” Best thing to do is keep the door secured. That way they can’t get out of the room.”

Senior keeper Candice Conato, who has been working at the Alligator Farm for five years, said she has not been involved in a similar incident. In addition to hosting reptile talks with venomous cottonmouth snakes and boa constrictors, she also participates in alligator feedings.

“No snake has escaped, not that I know of,” she said. “Even though it’s different because it’s a venomous snake, I think the media blows those things out of proportion.”

However, Darlington said an escape is not impossible.

“One time, we had a monkey escape from a shift cage,” he said. “Most of the time, they won’t go far. They’re horrified they’re out.”

Canato, who owns two pet pythons, agrees.

“Captive animals are more laid back,” she said. “They know what people are—that they’re not going to harm them. Our king cobra is pretty easy to move in and out. They learn routines.”

As the venomous snakes live in glass containers and the alligators and crocodiles reside in fenced enclosures, Darlington said the chance of escape is minimal. If it were to happen, he said he would be ready.

“If an alligator were to escape through broken fencing, we have [protocol],” he said. “I would encounter the animal, call for assistance and make sure to remove guests from the immediate area. Then, our teams would wrangle it. Not a real crazy thing.”

Even though a passion for animals has kept him at the Alligator Farm for almost two decades, Darlington said he acknowledges that they can never be domesticated.

“They associate us with food, so sometimes captive animals can be more dangerous,” he said. “Oh yeah, we’ve been bitten. But, it’s uncommon. Mostly, it depends on the animal and its behavior.”

Canato said a black-headed python bit her hand while she was cleaning its cage with a white paper towel—the same color of the rats they are fed. She said learning each animal’s behavior and personality is essential.

“The best thing to do is get a feel for [the animal],” she said. “Some snakes will sit on the table and be great. Others will try to slither off the table. I just watch and know the right movement with my hook.”

Herpetologist Cody Bartolini feeds a rat to an American alligator

However, Canato also said one scare caused her to rethink her job.

“The [alligator] feeding shows are always more dangerous,” she said. “One time, I was working with one and one came up behind me. It wanted something to eat, lunged at me and bumped my leg.”

Despite working with poisonous snakes and carnivorous reptiles, Canato said her training at the Alligator Farm has prepared her for the best and worse.

“It takes two to three months to cycle through everything—the whole park and every animal,” she said. “We learn each alligator, which ones will let you sit on their backs and which ones will swing. I don’t see myself doing anything else.”

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