Crocodile stud book was aim of Croc Classic

PALMDALE — The first Croc Classic at Gatorama took place Saturday, June 1, at the animal park. Involving a roundup and individual weighing and cataloging of each specimen, the census results astounded those present. Owners Allen and Patty Register were grateful for a large turnout of hands on deck to help them with their count and examination of the American crocodiles that live in Croc Pond. They ended up documenting a colony of 19 (although they’re not sure they collected all of them), 17 of which were females. That was the first surprise; the other was their size.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felkeri
Folks of all ages were present to watch the park’s crocodiles being captured as part of the Croc Classic at Gatorama Saturday, June 1, an event that leads up to Croc Fest this Saturday, June 8, at ZooMiami.

The 30-member “Croc Squad” taking part, made up of wildlife researchers and reptile scientists at various levels of expertise, were present all day and kept busy practically the whole time, except during the off-and-on afternoon downpours. While spectators stayed dry and watched from the sheltered bridge dividing the alligator hole from the Croc Pond, the researchers huddled under the big trees at the end of the Croc Pond, an area fenced off from the public. They still all got drenched because the rain only lightened up and never really backed off.

Among the facilities statewide represented on the Croc Squad were Animal Kingdom, the Crocodile Conservation Center, CrocStars, Florida Aquarium, Fred Grunwald’s Sanctuary, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, Wild Florida and Zoo Miami; 30 in all who were being led by the Registers and Gatorama staff along with former Gatorama curator Flavio Morrissiey, the “Gator King” whom Ms. Register also calls the “dean of croc trainers.”

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
One of the specimens is suspended in midair from a forklift for weighing.

Ms. Register said the largest female hauled in was 422.4 pounds; 10 feet, 6 inches in length; with a skull length of 49 cm (over a foot and a half). “She was a captive who’d been hatched here at Gatorama,” she said, and “her name is Watcher.” Yes, they do name their crocs and gators, even though the animals have other identifiers, which Mr. Morrissiey talked about later.

“A banquet followed at the Hatching Barn, with good food and drinks and time to reflect on the day and mentor the new generation of croc handlers coming up — and to tell old croc stories!” Ms. Register said.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Park owner Patty Register was recording on a clipboard all the measurements and weights for their census.

“We learned that we have a mostly female colony. We were astounded by the size of our females, which had long been considered males. We are still processing the data, but we are willing to disclose that by the end of Saturday, we captured, catalogued and released just 19, two of which were males. We have more in other exhibits.”

The total count of endangered American crocodiles at Gatorama is estimated at 30.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
It takes a whole lot of manpower to haul in a full-size mama crocodile, which weighs at least 450 pounds and possibly up to 1 ton.

But it takes many more than just a few croc wranglers to get a mature one of these reptiles under control so she could have her big mouth securely taped shut, be photographed head to tail, be hoisted for weighing, then be measured and finally be hauled back to the pond bank and released. It took a good half-dozen to 10 handlers to wrestle the larger ones into submission.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
One big female rolls violently to try to escape being hauled ashore at Gatorama’s Croc Pond. No harm was in store for her, though, other than some blood drawn for medical assessment and a midair swim in their forklift/scale contraption.

Mr. Morrissiey, who helped lead the troops rounding up the reptiles, said each animal was implanted with a tag that can be scanned electronically to give their vital information, which contains a number of ID tags including what subspecies they’re from, whether they were captive hatched or caught out of the wild, their sex, size dimensions and weight. The researchers also catalog photographs of their nuchal clusters (the large bones on the back of their neck) and their belly patterns.

“We’re doing a giant fundraiser on Saturday, June 8. Kurt of Zoo Miami and I are the organizers, and we have five researchers, one each from Florida, Belize, Guatemala, Colombia and Jamaica,” Mr. Morrissiey said. The American crocodile includes several subspecies and its range extends from the Southeast U.S. and southern Florida — including the Everglades and its coastal regions, inland waterways and even Lake Okeechobee — all the way out into the Bahamas, through the Cayman the Caribbean islands and all through Central and South America.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
One of the bigger female crocs is snared.

Ms. Register said that “Palmer,” their wild-caught crocodile from Isle of Palms, S.C., has grown about 6 feet since his capture in 2007. “He’s such a beauty and is of the South Miami blood line,” she said.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Gatorama will be having an appreciation dinner for their “Croc Squad,” made up of workers from zoos and animal advocacy and protection organizations from across the globe. Multiple languages were heard as they gathered under an old oak during a downpour.

It will impress all their female neighbors in the pond — who, after all, have the entire roster of croc studs to choose from who will be featured in the American Crocodile Stud Book that’s the aim of this project.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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