Walking into the Alligator Wildlife and Discovery Center, your eyes land on gators in their enclosures and the scent of fish food permeates the air.
Albino alligators, melanistic gators and piebald gators – those that have both excess pigmentation and a lack of pigmentation throughout their entire body – call the center home. Fewer than 20 piebald gators exist in the world.
But that’s only the beginning.
Started as a roadside attraction 10 years ago, the indoor Alligator Wildlife and Discovery Center now houses almost 250 rescued and rehabilitated animals. Located on the second story of John’s Pass, the alligator attraction serves as a nurturing environment for several species of exotic animals.
The sanctuary is home not only to alligators, but chinchillas, marine life, pigs, skunks, snakes, spiders, rodents and even a sloth. The center is open to the public for tours where guests can hold the gators and animals, and participate in a sloth encounter where they are permitted to pet Sid the Sloth.
Most of the animals at the center are either rescued or rehabilitated and are unable to venture back into the wild, Daniel Glenn, marketing manager for Alligator Wildlife and Discovery Center, explains.
“That’s one of the main things we want people to know: We’re out here as a resource,” Glenn said.
The sanctuary and education center employs an aquarist, a lizard handler and multiple staff skilled in handling exotic animals. Those exotic animals are a symptom of a larger problem.
Unfortunately, says Glenn, the pet trade creates a lot of issues for Florida’s natural environment.
“Ninety percent of what you see here also, if not higher, is going to be an invasive species to Florida, which also is a result of the pet trade,” Glenn said. “We now have over 500 invasive species in Florida between the water, the land and the plant life. So exotic pet trade has a huge, huge, huge impact on invasive species here in Florida.”
According to Glenn, when owners of exotic animals are unable to care for them, they might take them to facilities like the Humane Society or a veterinary clinic, both more accustomed to dealing with domesticated pets like cats, dogs and birds. Since those types of shelters are unable to house and handle the non-domesticated animals, often their only option is euthanasia.
“In the last year during COVID, we went up to almost 100 animals just because of people that couldn’t care for [their animals] anymore. But even more so from breeders and pet stores going out of business,” Glenn said. “So what happens when that occurs is the Florida Wildlife Commission will come in, they’ll seize the animals so that a pet owner, or a pet breeder or a pet store owner doesn’t just release them into the wild.”
Due to the nature of the indoor facility, the center keeps alligators until they grow to four or five feet before they are transferred to larger zoos and sanctuaries, according to Glenn.
In addition to rehabilitating and rehoming animals, the center is working to attain a Zoological Association of America accreditation and has adopted three husbandry programs to assist with the certification. Currently, they are breeding poison dart frogs, coral and growing mangroves.