MOSCA, Colo. (AP) — As Jay Young rolls up his pants and wades through the murky pond, Elvis lets out a throaty hiss. It looks like a pressurized water hose cleaning a barrel.
Young pats the 12-foot-long, 600-pound alligator’s muzzle and the creature in gnarled armor lunges forward, its mouth full of teeth wide.
“He still wants to eat me after all these years,” Young says, deftly dodging Elvis, an alligator his father acquired in 1987 to help eat piles of fish guts.
Elvis was among the first residents of Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a geothermal oasis in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos. The San Luis Valley attraction ranks among the weirdest on Colorado’s tourist trophy shelf, drawing an estimated 40,000 visitors a year to one of the country’s only alligator sanctuaries outside of the South and North. Texas.
There are 270 alligators spread over 80 acres at Colorado Gators, plus two Nile crocodiles and a few spectacled caimans. Young’s father, Erwin Young, purchased the acreage in 1977 and began farming tilapia in 87-degree ponds filled with geothermal wells. A decade later, overwhelmed by the carcasses of fish fillets, the Youngs purchased a group of alligators to serve as natural trash.
It didn’t take long for the alligators to attract visitors, and the Youngs’ business plan shifted away from selling fish. (He still raises fish, but as food for alligators, not for people.) Today, Jay Young travels the country saving all kinds of alligators, pythons, turtles and iguanas.
“It’s such a cool story with how it started and the innovation there,” says Kale Mortensen, the director of Visit Alamosa, who counts the gator park among his top draws. “It’s definitely a big part of our tourism economy.”
Carly Holbrook has spent 15 years marketing Colorado tourist attractions for the Colorado Office of Tourism and regional visitor boards. She always recommends a stop at Young’s Alligator Menagerie in the middle of nowhere, west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. She remembers being a teenager, posing with her siblings as she clutched a young alligator, “with slightly frightened smiles,” she said.
She said she always walked out of Young’s oasis wondering “where the hell am I?”
“Jay is a great distributor of his unexpected, goofy offerings…and I totally agree that his character and his alligator park are Tiger King-esque,” she says. “It’s not something you would expect to experience in Colorado.”
Most of the alligators Young adopted, about 150, were illegal pets. They start out cute, he says, but they get past that phase pretty quickly. Same with Young’s 29 tortoises, which can live over 100 years and weigh 200 pounds.
“And they can be very destructive,” Young says as he dodges a turtle slithering through a damp hallway of glowing glass tanks filled with snakes and lizards basking under light bulbs.
One of the tanks contains alligator eggs. In over 30 years of operation, Young has never fed alligator eggs. The flow of rescues is so large that there is no need to recur, he says. Alligators try, but there’s “no chance” of alligator eggs surviving in Colorado’s climate. It’s just an experiment, he says.
Exotic pet stores also provide a steady stream of new arrivals. Like the pig-nosed turtle — or Fly River — that Young recently adopted when the owner of an exotic pet store in Texas died and his collection was disbanded.
“Look at those fins,” he says as he plucks the trembling turtle from a pond in the shade of a fig tree planted in 1887.
Young simply shows a 135-pound alligator snapping turtle perched on a rock in a weedy swamp. You don’t take Kong, he said.
Outsider, alligators are huddled together on the shores of lukewarm ponds, a dense and dangerous carpet that could feature prominently in any respectable nightmare. Young is still working on his plans to build a diving lagoon, where divers can swim separated from alligators by a plexiglass wall.
Just about anything that happens at gator park fits well into the area’s “Mystic San Luis Valley” tourism marketing campaign. The Great Sand Dunes draw visitors, but the valley’s Colorado alligator park and UFO lookout tower on Colorado 17 — the “Cosmic Highway” — keep tourists entertained and maybe a little longer.
“We’re full of unique little places that people really enjoy,” Mortensen says.