Alligators at home at the Academy


Alligators are no muss, no fuss travelers. For a day four-day drive from Florida to San Francisco, all they need are the crates they travel in and a fan to keep them cool.

"They can go months without anything to eat," alligator hauler Rick Cleveland said.

During the trip, Cleveland keeps track of the animals by peeking in the crates and sleeps in the truck with them.

"It's just like a baby," Cleveland said. "I don't leave them, no matter what it is, I don't leave them."

The real challenge is getting the alligators out of the crates and into their new home inside the Academy. First they are taken out for a medical exam, something Claude, an albino alligator, is less than excited about.

"It's a very nerve racking process, obtaining the animal, packing it up, shipping it and getting it, unpacking it, checking it's medical condition, then releasing it into the exhibit," Academy director of public programs Chris Andrews said.

The alligators travel with their mouths taped closed. After they are examined, they are put back in their crates to be moved to the exhibit area. Once they are moved and the tape is removed, the crate is lowered into the swamp tanks. Cleveland has been doing this kind of work for 20 years, but you can never be too careful.

"It can be quite tense and so on, but today's procedure, we rehearsed it two or three times before today with boxes and bags of sand and so on," Andrews said.

The alligators are now in the water, getting used to their new homes. The Academy expects them to be a prime attraction, just like the alligators in the original Steinhart Aquarium, where the old swamp tank was one of the museum's most popular exhibits.

When the old tank was taken apart, the bronze seahorse railing was saved, along with the hand-painted tiles installed in 1923.

But the new tank has some improvements. There is an underwater viewing window and the rock island in the center has radiant heating.

"When gators feed they tend to eat large meals and then they like to find somewhere warm to go and sleep," Andrews said.

Both alligators in the exhibit are American alligators, bred in captivity. Claude's white coloring is a natural mutation, but in the wild, albino babies rarely survive.

"In nature those animals are usually quickly removed by predators because it's like a flashing neon sign, 'eat me,'" Andrews said.

The two alligators were born in 1995. At the Academy, they are expected to live many decades.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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