Gator Country reopens amid pandemic

BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) — When Gary Saurage and staff closed the doors to Gator Country March 11 amid coronavirus restrictions, a Big Al-sized bite was taken out of his income. March spring break season brings in the second-largest earnings month for Gator Country.

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The following month, Saurage said, they had been booked Monday through Friday with group field trips, all of which were canceled along with road shows he had planned.

May 2, Gator Country reopened.

“We were so glad to get back open,” he told The Beaumont Enterprise. “When you got 500 alligators to feed, trust me, you need customers.”

Last Monday, a slow trickle of guests made their way through the grounds, including Kayla Costanzo of Bridge City, who visited Gator Country for the first time with daughters Kenny and Braelynn. The Bridge City family was glad for the opportunity to get out of the house, and she was happy to surprise her children with a long-anticipated first visit to the park.

Interns Jesus Reyes and Blake Mitchell gave them a guided tour of the various alligator ponds, telling them about each of the gators in one large enclosure as they fed raw chicken chunks to the dozen alligators who surrounded the deck at the sounding of a lunch bell.

Next Mitchell took them to the home of Gator Country legend Big Al, stepping inside the enclosure to call the 88-year-old 13-plus-foot gator to the pond’s edge using hand and voice signals. Standing just feet away, Mitchell enticed Big Al with more hand signals to open his impressively large mouth. The showing by the behemoth is among the most popular events at the park.

Mitchell then took them to the reptile house, where the girls got to meet Josie, a Colombian red-tailed boa. Kayla took photos as each girl wore Josie the boa like a boa draped round their shoulders.

Mitchell arrived for his internship just as the coronavirus quarantine went into effect and decided to stay through it. Since the restrictions were lifted, he has been able to put the knowledge he’s gotten since working with the gators to use with a public audience.

Mitchell was joined by Rick Stalker, who also started working with Saurage at Gator Country as the pandemic took hold in Southeast Texas. The park has been a refuge of sorts for Stalker as well. His lifelong job as a woodworker came to a sudden halt after he was laid off from Fine Touch Refinishing. Initially, the furlough was temporary, but it soon became permanent, Stalker said.

Needing to get out of the house one day, Stalker took his drone out to try and capture on video a large alligator spotted near Smith Road. He’d been shooting drone videos for about a year. The gator search proved unsuccessful, but he recalls thinking, “I can turn right and go home, or I can turn left.” He turned left, and soon found himself near Gator Country.

The chance decision led to a video partnership between Saurage and Stalker, with Stalker shooting and editing footage of gator rescues and interviews with the park’s staff airing on YouTube.

His footage is looped on the screens outside the reptile house and video posts have gotten high view volume.

Stalker is working toward reaching the 1,000-subscriber benchmark to begin monetizing his YouTube channel, turning his video skills into a new career path.

His staff interview segments focus on the psychology behind why Gator Country staff and interns do what they do.

“There’s always a reason behind why people do things. Maybe it’s something they didn’t get as a kid growing up, or maybe it’s something that happened to them. I’ve learned a lot about the people here,” he said.

The segments have caught the attention of a national media outlet, with whom they have been discussing a possible weekly spot.

Stalker hopes the negotiations work out, but regardless, he is embracing the new turn life has taken amid the upheaval of a global pandemic.