Written by Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun
MOSCA, Colorado (AP) – As Jay Young lifts his pants up and dives into the mysterious pond, Elvis makes a throaty hiss. The pressurized water hose appears to clean the barrel.
Young pecks at the snout of the 12-foot-long, 600-pound crocodile and the spiky, broad-toothed, armored creature rushes forward.
“He still wants to eat me after all these years,” Young says, cleverly avoiding Elvis, a crocodile his father got in 1987 as a go-to for eating heaps of fish guts.
Elvis was an early resident of the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a geothermal oasis in the shadow of Sangre de Christos. The St. Louis Valley attraction ranks among Colorado’s weirdest attractions, drawing about 40,000 visitors a year to one of the country’s only alligator sanctuaries outside of South and Texas.
There are 270 alligators spread over 80 acres in the Colorado Gators, as well as two Nile alligators and two amazing caimans. Young’s father, Erwin Young, bought the space in 1977 and began growing tilapia in 87-degree swimming pools filled with geothermal wells. A decade later, soaked in the carcasses of fish fillets, Young bought a batch of alligators to serve as a kind of natural garbage disposal.
It didn’t take long to attract visitors, and Young’s business plan moved away from selling fish. (He still farms fish, but as food for bridges, not people.) Today, Jae Young travels the country to save alligators, snakes, turtles, and iguanas.
“It’s a great story about how they got started and innovated there,” says Kale Mortensen, Director of Visit Alamosa, whose crocodile park is among its best draws. “It’s definitely a big part of our tourism economy.”
Carly Holbrook has spent 15 years marketing Colorado tourist attractions to both the Colorado Tourism Bureau and regional visitor offices. She always recommends a stop at the Young Gator Zoo in the middle of nowhere else, west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. As a teenager, she remembered, posing with her siblings holding a small alligator, she said, “with slightly creepy smiles.”
She said she always comes out of Young’s Oasis asking “Where the hell am I?”
“Jay is an excellent marketer for his unexpected and outlandish shows…and I totally agree that his character and Gator theme park are Tiger King-esque,” she says. “Not something you would expect to experience in Colorado.”
Most of the alligators that Young adopted, approximately 150, were illegal pets. He says they start off nicely, but get over that stage pretty quickly. Same with the 29 Young’s tortoises, which can live over 100 years and grow to 200 pounds.
“And they can be very destructive,” Young says, avoiding a turtle wandering into a damp lane of glowing glass tanks filled with snakes and lizards basking under lamps.
One of the tanks holds some crocodile eggs. Over 30 years of operation, Young Young has never taken care of alligator eggs. He says the flow of rescues is too big, and there’s no need to multiply. Alligator tries, but “no chance” of alligator eggs in Colorado climate. He says this is just an experiment.
Exotic pet stores also provide a steady stream of new arrivals. Like Young’s pig-nosed turtle — or Fly River — he was recently adopted when a strange Texas pet store owner died and his group disbanded.
“Look at these fins,” he said, picking a shivering turtle from a pond in the shade of a fig tree planted in 1887.
Young refers only to a 135-pound crocodile tortoise perched on a rock in an indoor swamp strewn with weeds. He says you are not picking up Kunj.
Outside, piled high on frosty ponds banks are a dense, dangerous carpet that would feature prominently in any respectable nightmare. Young is still working on his plans to build a scuba lake, where divers can swim and is separated from the bulkheads by a glass wall.
Everything that happens in Gator Park fits perfectly with the tourism marketing campaign in the region “Mystic San Luis Valley”. Great sand dunes draw visitors in, but Colorado Gator Canyon Park and UFO Watchtower at Colorado 17 – “Cosmic Highway” – keep tourists entertained and maybe around a little longer.
“We’re full of unique little sites that people really enjoy,” Mortensen says.
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