It made international headlines last month when a little alligator with no upper jaw was brought to the Gatorland nature park in Orlando.
Then the questions poured in. She’s estimated to be about 4 years old. How did she survive this long? How does she eat? How did she get this injury? Is there a prosthesis in her future, like Winter the dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium who got a plastic tail and became a movie star?
The half-snouted namesake of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” was first spotted by a hiker in the swamps of Sanford, between Daytona Beach and Orlando. A trapper eventually found the juvenile gator and brought her to Gatorland in Orlando.
Gatorland is a kitschy old-school Florida roadside attraction, which has at its heart a mission to love the unlovable. It is home to more than 125 alligators. Tourists can buy turkey dogs to feed them by hand — please don’t to that in the wild, though. Their live show pokes fun at rednecks while hanging raw chickens out for the gators to fight over in a spectacle.
We talked to her caretaker, Savannah Boan, and found out this gator has quite a personality. She even snapped at the vet who first visited her. Or rather, she tried to snap at him because she seems oblivious to her lack of an upper jaw, Boan said. She’s still a gator, after all.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How do you think Jawlene survived long enough for you to rescue her?
Based on how we have seen her eat, we think she hunkered down in the shallows. We put something on her tongue and she puts her bottom jaw up really high and it kind of slides back. So I would imagine that’s how she was eating when she was wild alligator. Like if she could get a little minnow or something like that. But the thing is because her sinuses are cut off she can’t really smell.
How does she breathe?
She has a hole that is left open from her sinuses if you look at her head-on. So what she taught herself to do before she even got here is she uses her glottis (an animal’s airway). What she’s done is she’s found a way to cover that hole for her sinuses with her glottis so that when she goes under it doesn’t fill up with water. She taught herself that. We didn’t teach her that. She’s pretty fascinating.
Do we have any idea of how this happened?
The trapper that brought her to us, Jerry, thinks it got hit with a boat propeller or maybe a hunter’s snare because it is a very straight cut and it was completely healed by the time she came to us. But she was really underweight when we got her.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Does she have any food preferences?
We tried first with crickets. She knew it was little bugs moving and we could see her react but she has a very hard time catching the crickets because she doesn’t have anything to catch them with. So as I sprinkle crickets in the water she gets very excited about the potential for catching them and the potential to eat. You can see her eyes light up like, “Oh that’s something. Let me go catch that.”
One side of her top jaw is bigger than the other side so she can kind of catch it. She doesn’t catch it like a normal alligator would. She’s kind of like a toddler in that she wants to do it herself.
We tried beef but I guess she didn’t like the texture of that. We tried shrimp and she did take down one shrimp but I don’t think she was a big fan of that. Pork is a different consistency so it kind of sticks on her tongue differently so she has been able to slurp that down. But all animals, especially apex predators, like a whole-prey diet. So what we have been doing is we have these little rats that come to us pre-frozen and we thaw those out and that’s the best meal she can have.
We are feeding her twice a week right now so she gains some weight. We put the little pre-killed rat on her tongue and she slurps that back. I think she likes those the best. But then her second favorite is pork. So, like a lot of good Southern girls she likes barbecue.
Is there a prosthesis in her future to give her a top jaw?
The thing is, she is so small and this cut is so close to her eyeballs. Plus, she is still growing. She’s been through a lot in her little life and so to try to put a prosthetic on there, first of all she is going to outgrow it. And then she’s going to need another one. And then she’ll outgrow that and need another one. It’s something we have tossed around but ... it would be difficult and reptiles don’t do well with stress. Stress alone can make them shut down and stop eating.
Right now we are concerned with getting her healthy. She is a great little fighter. The last time we fed her on Saturday she swam straight over and came after the food.
Why do you only feed her twice a week?
Alligators in the wild don’t eat that often. But because she’s so underweight we are trying to bulk her up. A big alligator in the state of Florida could eat six or seven times a year and still be fine. Alligators and crocodiles can go a very long time without eating. They control their own metabolism. If there is a food shortage they can slow that metabolism down. If food is plentiful, they are opportunistic. They don’t have to eat as much as people think they do. They eat good here at Gatorland, for sure, but they don’t eat that much when they are wild animals.
I hear this isn’t unusual in the wild, that a gator can lose a top jaw and survive?
Yes, lots of alligators and crocodiles lose their top jaws in battles. Usually when we see that it is a bigger alligator. They survive fine.
I doubt she would have survived too long, though. She would have continued to go down in weight.
Can the public see her?
She is not available for viewing by the public yet. Less stress and more food is her ultimate goal. That is something our CEO and vet would have to approve and would likely be very limited.
I totally get that everyone wants to see her but it’s really not the best thing for her right now. A bunch of eyes on her might cause her to shut down.
I hear she does try to bite.
I don’t think she knows she doesn’t have a top jaw. So when the vet came the first time she swarmed on him and tried to bite him. If she got you in the right spot she does have enough to pinch you ... in the corner of her mouth.
She’s an alligator no doubt. I don’t think she knows it’s not there, she just gets frustrated when she can’t catch or bite what she wants to bite.
Overall she is the greatest thing, she is so cute and everybody loves her. I get more questions about her every single day, probably more than any alligator we have ever had.
We are really proud of Jawlene. She is such a great survivor story.