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Zoo staff says 'see you later gator' to longtime alligators

By Gheni_Platenburg
April 13, 2011 at 11 p.m.
Updated April 12, 2011 at 11:13 p.m.

Andrea Blomberg, executive director of the Texas Zoo, lays over an alligator to keep it still during preparations to remove three large gators from the zoo. CMT reality show personality Gary Saurage from Beaumont runs a gator rescue service and exchanged several smaller gators for the zoo's three-foot reptiles.

Saying goodbye is so hard.

At least it was that way for the Texas Zoo's baboons as they sat on their tree branches screeching loudly and peering intently through the fence as their longtime next door neighbors - the American alligators - were moved out of their exhibit on Wednesday afternoon.

Although not available for comment, their squeals and flailing arms told the whole story of their feelings.

The alligators - Popeye, Sweet Pea, and Bluto - prepared to move to Beaumont, courtesy of Gary Saurage, star of Country Music Television's reality show, "Gator 911."

"They are going to take care of the bigger gators better than we can now," said Andrea Blomberg, executive director of the zoo.

Weighing in at 157 pounds, 201 pounds, and 161 pounds, the female alligators, who had been at the zoo since about 1998 and ranged in length from 7 feet 8 inches to 8 feet, had grown too large, resulting in their agitating each other and sometimes fighting, said Blomberg.

Saurage will be taking the alligators to Gator Country, his 15-acre adventure park and reservation for alligators, crocodiles and snakes.

"Whenever someone calls and says their gators have outgrown an exhibit or they need help organizing their exhibit, we try to help," said Saurage, who had participated in many studies on the American alligator and has one of only a few nuisance alligator hunting permits in the state.

"This little zoo is really well kept. They are on top of making sure the animals are comfortable," he said.

Although the alligators were going to a better place, they did not leave their longtime residence without a fight, living up to their charismatic names.

Visitors watched excitedly as Saurage, some members of the zoo staff and Damon Bailey, Saurage's apprentice and one of the head alligator hunters at Gator Country, worked to lasso and wrestle the alligators out of their exhibit and onto the scale for a weigh in and then into the famous Gator Country truck.

"It's exciting," said Blomberg, who helped with maneuvering the alligators.

The zoo will not be without alligators, though.

Saurage, who rescues about 150 alligators a year, replaced the larger ones with three rescued smaller ones, who share the same names as the bigger counterparts.

The alligators that arrived at the zoo on Tuesday are between 1 and 2 ½ years old.

However, they are too young for their sex to be determined.

The new Sweet Pea, Popeye and Bluto will be moving into a renovated exhibit thanks to Aloe Elementary School.

For the second year in a row, the school adopted the alligators, raising $1,441.47 to go toward necessary renovations to the exhibit.

"With alligators being our mascot, we took them in as part of our family," said Aloe Elementary assistant principal Inez Kucera. "Instead of buying ice cream sandwiches at lunch, students gave to the gator fund."

Aloe students understood why the previous alligators had to be traded for the smaller ones.

"I'm not that sad because they'll probably be at a good place and be happy with their other owners," said 10-year-old Emilee Bethke, a fourth-grader.

The baby alligators were a big hit among the students.

"It was awesome," said 7-year-old Emma Scarborough, a first-grader. "It was fun because we actually got to pet a real live alligator."

"I learned that they have 80 teeth - 40 on top and 40 on the bottom," Bethke said.

Renovations to the alligator's exhibit are expected to begin in early May, according to Blomberg.

Until then, however, the small alligators will reside in holding tanks at the zoo.

Although Sweet Pea will be used for education, it has not been decided yet whether the other two will be on public display before they are moved into their renovated exhibit, Blomberg said.

Saurage said he hopes his visit will inspire more people to take an interest in alligators.

"These animals are from here. They are dangerous, but they are also majestic. They are the last of the dinosaurs," said Saurage, who proudly wore a shirt that said, "Quick Hands or no Hands."

"They can be fatal to man, but if you give them their space, we can all live together," he said.

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