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Alligator Farm houses alligators, other wildlife in personal biosphere

The 1930s Spanish-style entrance alludes to the historic district of St. Augustine that hugs the north bank of the Matanzas River. But once guests buy their tickets ($21.95 for adults) and pass through the doors, 45 adult American alligators greet them in the center of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

The 116-year-old zoo has never operated as a commercial alligator farm, but its director, John Brueggen, said visitors attach a fondness to the name.

The daily schedule at the zoo includes feeding demonstrations in the Alligator Lagoon: one reptile keeper versus the 45 greeters, some exceeding 13 feet in length and each with 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of bite force.

Though the 127 other non-crocodilian species in the park may not have a bite force to match that of the alligator, fences and glass still separate guests from animals. But just as guests learn about the more than 1,000 specimens at the zoo, the animals learn from the guests.

Guests walking toward the komodo dragons might get a wolf whistle from Sheba, a female red-sided eclectus parrot. Brueggen said Sheba’s species’ natural contact call resembles a human’s wolf whistle, and she has modified hers after guests responded in kind.

Some of the specimens at the zoo come and go as they please from the rookery, which shows the role alligators play in the ecosystem.

Bird species, including the great egret, nest in the rookery’s two acres because the alligators deter animals that prey on the birds’ eggs, Brueggan said. The alligators, however, lie in wait to eat a hatchling that his or her siblings pushed out of the nest due to lack of food, he said.

Brueggen said he wanted guests to have respect for all animals, both foreign and domestic, and understand how human activity affects their survival. He said he wanted guests to apply that respect to saving species and preserving their habitats, even in their backyards.

Open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day, the Alligator Farm offers varying rates for groups and those with disabilities.

Check out alligatorfarm.us for more information.

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