The Highest Alligators in the West

By Richard McCord

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Up in the headwaters of New Mexico's mightiest river, the Rio Grande, not far across the state line in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, lurks one of the most unlikely roadside attractions that a curious motorist will find in the Rocky Mountain West: an honest-to-goodness alligator farm.

The alligator farm's highway sign, on Colorado 17 north of Alamosa, between the hamlets of Mosca and Hooper, seems at first glance a schoolboy's prank-except that it looks official. And anyone hooking east on Nine Mile Lane discovers that it is.

For located at Two Mile Creek Wildlife Habitat, a somewhat misnamed operation that is really a commercial fish-processing plant, is an amazing colony of more than 80 gators, or every age and size.

The encyclopedia says: "The American alligator is found only in the southeastern United States." Cold-blooded reptiles left from prehistoric times, alligators need warm water to survive. Gators prefer near-sea-level habitats, such as the Mississippi delta, the swamps of southern Georgia or the lakes and inlets across Florida.

So what are 80 of these creatures doing at 7,000 feet, in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains, in a wind-ravaged valley that every winter logs the coldest temperatures in the Lower 48? The answer is exotic and ordinary at the same time.

The key to the alligators' existence in this peculiar setting a geothermal well tht supplies naturally heated water to the fish-growing operation at Two Mile Creek. Warmed by vestigal activity from the volcanoes that shaped the region eons ago, the well flows at 87 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

About two decades ago Two Mile Creek tapped the potential of this unusual resource to develop a tasty breed of tropical fish called Rocky Mountain White Tilapia. As the demand for the tilapia increased in New York, Chicago, Toronto and other cities, the fish plant in Colorado also grew. But along with the growth came a smelly, messy, ever-mounting problem: disposal fish waste.

Then someone had an idea: If nature's own geothermal water (which actually feels only lukewarm to the human touch-our body temperature, after all, is 98.6 degrees) was suitable for tropical fish, might it not also support one of nature's most effective fish-disposal systems? Namely, the alligator.

Nobody knew if it would. Seldom had gators been studied high altitude, much less in ambient-air temperatures that often hit 10, 15 or even 20 degrees below zero. Moreover, as a threatened species, the alligator was protected by strict environmental laws.

But Two Mile Creek persevered. It got the necessary permits, constructed what seemed to be an appropriate environment, and undertook the experiment. When the first "pioneers" proved remarkably adaptable, the San Luis Valley Alligator Farm became something to noted on official highway signs.

Despite its brake-screeching title, the alligator farm is an unpretentious place, still more a fish plant than anything else. From a dirt parking lot visitors enter a small, trailer-like structure, to learn that tours of the "Wildlife Habitat" cost $2 per adult, $1 extra if you want to feed the gators.

A guide leads you through big, rusty holding tanks full of tilapia, as well as green sunfish, albino catfish and tadpoles. Then come the gators, in large pens with pools, enclosed by thick wire mesh. One moment they seem immobile, frozen in place. The next instant they are splashing furiously into the water.

An information sheet fascinates with alligator lore: That the crushing power of their jaws is 3,500 pounds per square inch, yet their snout can be held shut by a rubber band at the tip. That all alligator eggs incubated at 87 degrees will be female, while eggs incubated at 91 degrees come out male. That gators are dangerous.

There are even some bad jokes, such as: "Question: What do you call an alligator detective? Answer: An investigator." Har, har.

All in all, it's a surprising stop on the journey from here to there. For wanderers who, like this writer, enjoy roadside oddities, a pause at the San Luis Valley Alligator Farm will be-har, har-as refreshing as a long, deep quaff of Gatorade.

To order Richard McCord's book "The Chain Gang: one Newspaper versus the Gannett Empire," just out in paperback, visit Amazon.com .

Other Articles by Richard McCord


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