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Palmdale: Biggest bite per capita

In Palmdale, alligators outnumber humans by more than 100 to 1.

The 2000 census counted 329 souls in the shorter than three-mile stretch along Highway 27 that defines the blink-of-an-eye, unincorporated town in Glades County.

On the other hand, Palmdale's Gatorama, one of Florida's oldest alligator farms and roadside attractions, tends to more than 3,000 alligators and crocodiles. That's on a light day.

On the heels of its annual summertime Hatching Fest, crocodilian (alligator and crocodile) populations spike above 6,000 for a few weeks.

During those 10 days in mid-August, human numbers swell, too, in Palmdale. More than 4,500 people attend the festival; 150 to 200 of them can add "gator-midwife" to their lifetime resume. It's an exclusive qualification – there is no other place in all of Florida where you can achieve this. A certificate welcoming experienced hatchers into the "rarefied, cracked and scrambled order of Southern Behemoths of the Swampy Lowlands" attests to the accomplishment.

That, and the dozens of pictures family members inevitably shoot of their kids, grandkids and spouses as they gently coax a toothless newborn from the top of its chicken-egg-like shell by pushing up from a hole they've chipped away from the bottom.

One woman claimed she was so excited her hands shook as she tore a hole in the tough membrane at the top so the baby gator could climb out. Kids chattered eagerly, more confident of their skills and thrilled with the wriggly little creatures in their hands. They unwillingly parted with their charges as they carefully placed them into a tub holding water and rocks for the babies, half-shells still attached by umbilical cords.

Kim Willis from Clewiston took her 4-year-old granddaughter Cricket Bryant to the festival. "She was absolutely thrilled," the grandmother said afterward. "She felt like a momma gator and wanted to keep the hatchling for her very own. This is a wonderful learning experience for any age."

The hands-on hatching comes after a thorough educational briefing and demonstration and the donning of rubber gloves. Volunteers assist at each trough filled with moss, where hatchers are told to lay their babies after the ordeal of hatching, which can be a bit exhausting, owner Allen Register tells the crowd of 15 hatchers and their families.

Gatorama has been around since the 1950s, raising alligators for their meat and hides and entertaining visitors with thousands of gators and crocodiles, feeding shows, and a collection of other exotic fauna. Education has gradually become a priority.

Everything you have ever wanted to learn about a crocodilian you will discover here. Did you know, for instance, that a crocodile can jump half of its body length out of the water to snatch, with a spine-tingling snap, the meat from a fearless feeder's hand?

Some more useful information: If a momma gator ever catches you robbing the eggs from her nest – as Gatorama staff does each June – you can keep her at bay with the tap of a long stick on her snout. Do not try this at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Gatorama is one of fewer than a dozen true alligator farms still operating in Florida, and the only one that opens to the public.

"We're a small attraction with only about 100 visitors a day," said co-owner Patty Register. "We're family-owned and family-operated. We're one of only 13 roadside tourist attractions still around that predate Disney."

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission oversees the collection of all alligator eggs farmed in the state, says Register. Every egg eventually ends up at Gatorama. Patty's husband, Allen, by the farmers' election, then coordinates the delivery of the eggs to farms that have pre-ordered and prepaid for them. Most of the incubated eggs hatch on their own, but the Registers decided to let the public in on the process, and eight years ago, they gave birth to the Hatching Fest tradition.

The family also operates the recreational concessions at Palmdale's Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area. The state-owned, 18,272-acre public lands and Gatorama are the two remaining businesses in an early 20th-century boom town once driven by hunting and fishing tourism. They are the two reasons people visit Palmdale these days.

As for Palmdale's human residents, most today work in the nearest town – Glades County's seat, Moore Haven. Or they are retired or live off the land on long-held family property, says Register, whose family lives on-site at Gatorama. (Palmdale is an hour from Fort Myers, two hours from Sarasota, 2.5 hours from Orlando.)

Woodsy Fisheating Creek continues to draw adventurers, if at a decreased rate – adventurers who are willing to paddle or hike to see the ruins of Seminole War-era Fort Spencer, ancient native Indian mounds, cypress swamp, wild turkeys, an occasional Florida black bear and one of the largest roosting sites for swallowtail kites. The Registers' Fisheating Creek Outpost welcomes RV and primitive tent campers, the latter of whom can stake right on the creek.

What paddlers along the 40-mile-long Fisheating Creek won't see is one other sign of civilization. Human population is zero along the Creek. Gator population? Uncountable.

Palmdale: Biggest bite per capita 10/19/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 19, 2012 2:36pm]

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