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Shiverin' Alligators! : What's a gang of 'gators doing in Colorado? Scarfing fish guts and drawing curious crowds.

July 26, 1993|LESLIE LINTHICUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ALAMOSA, Colo. — High in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, the jagged snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the looming San Juan range to the west form a kind of cold sandwich.

Snow falls in buckets in this wide, flat valley and when the cold comes, it stays. There are nights when the mountains hug the cold tight until the temperature dips well below freezing.

On a very cold day here, all you can see in Erwin Young's pond are dozens of pairs of craggy nostrils breaking the water's surface. Here at 7,500 feet, where ski racks and tire chains are de rigueur, Young is growing gators.

They are the polar opposite of the proverbial snowball in hell, these snarly, crusty snappers, and they are 2,000 miles from the swamps and lazy rivers of home.

On a clear day, Young's gator pond looks like a swarming pile of blown-out truck tires as alligators pile on top of each other two and three deep to soak up the sun. The pond looks out on stunning 14,000-foot peaks iced with snow year 'round, but the gators aren't here for the view. What brings them so far from home is 87-degree water that feels just like the bayou--and all the fish guts they can eat.

But how did they get here?

*

Young is a construction worker who started raising fish for commercial sale decades ago. Now he's in his 50s and his fish business is doing well enough that he can lay down his nail gun and pursue fish farming full time. Much of Young's success can be attributed to Rocky Mountain White Tilapia, a breed of freshwater perch he developed a few years ago on his 80-acre farm, north of Alamosa. The perch grow in the balmy water piped onto the property from 2,000-foot-deep artesian wells. He sells fresh fish to markets in New York, Chicago, Houston and Canada.

Young expects that as Tilapia--a standard now in restaurants across the country--becomes even more popular, grocery stores and fish markets will want fillets, and so he is building a processing plant. And hand in hand with a fish processing plant come bushels of leftover fish heads, innards and bones.

Young could have just ordered another dumpster. But he is a man who loves critters and has an eye for creative recycling, even if he would never call it that. Young is a man given to plaid shirts, gimme caps and few well-chosen words.

Fish guts don't appeal to many, he'll admit. "But," he says, "alligators do love them."

And so the alligators came to town.

And they are a sight.

Behind a 5-foot-tall chain-link fence just outside the fish production plant, a 12,000-square-foot pond holds an almost cartoonishly large collection of grizzled gators observing no rules of personal space or decorum. They crawl over each other with a crackling sound that reminds visitors to moisturize their elbows as soon as they get home. They hiss and occasionally snap at a passing fish or the errant duck unwise enough to land inside the fence. They sit with their mouths frozen open for minutes on end.

It is a sight few, even those from gator country, have ever seen. The only sizable alligator population outside of Florida, Louisiana and East Texas might have caused quite a commotion in other communities. But this is the San Luis Valley, where atmospheric conditions seem right for attracting the odd. Within a few miles on the valley floor are a buffalo ranch, the highest sand dunes in North America (a few adventurers ski on them in the winter), and groups of Hindus, Buddhists and even Denver Broncos fans.

Still, Young wasn't sure how the neighbors would react to a group of alligators making a beachhead on land that has grown nothing more interesting than potatoes and wheat. So he kept his herd a secret at first. The first shipment came in a truck from Florida in 1986. The little gators were only about a foot long and could be handled by one set of hands. Young put them in tanks inside a large metal building, piped in the warm spring water that flows throughout his farm, locked the door and swore his employees to secrecy.

But the alligators grew, and Young bought more. Keeping 80 alligators a secret in the Rocky Mountains is about as easy as keeping a ski resort under wraps in the Everglades. Pretty soon word got out that there was something unusual going on in that building off Highway 17.

Interest intensified when Young began experimenting to see whether the gators could survive outside in the kind of weather that made Patagonia famous.

Young dug out a pond, enclosed it with chain-link fence and brought a few gators outside to experience a Colorado winter. That was more than three years ago, and since then all of the gators have moved outside and nearly all have survived.

The alligators are 7 years old now, and the biggest is 9 feet long. They thrive on plenty of dead fish, a high-protein commercial chow called Alligator Pellets and an occasional dead cow from a friendly neighbor. In the past two years, Young has lightened up on the raw beef, though.

"They were getting pretty vicious," he says.

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