A thick, knobby log, nearly 14 feet long, floats motionless in algae-covered swamp water. The mottled greenish-black form is still, creating not a single ripple.
Just a few feet above, a small group of people peers down over the railing of an elevated boardwalk. Someone tosses a biscuit into the water.
Suddenly, the “log” springs into violent motion, snapping up the fig-sized biscuit with such force that a gray heron flushes out of a nearby tree, startled by the splash. It’s not a log at all — rather, a 900-pound American alligator.
“Whoa!” exclaims a young boy watching from above. “Did you see that? Cool!”
A smiling man wearing an oversized straw hat approaches the boy’s family, now chattering with excitement.
“That’s Captain Crunch,” Alligator Alley owner Wes Moore says to the boy. “He’s got the most powerful bite force of any alligator here. Crunch is even saddle-broke. Why don’t you hop down there and give him a ride?”
The young visitor stares until Moore gives away the joke with a wink and a grin. It’s all part of the fun at Alligator Alley.
Home to 600 Alligators
Now in its 14th year of operation, the Summerdale, Ala., park has long since left the designation of “roadside attraction” and is considered a major tourist destination, with more than 50,000 annual visitors. The 160-acre property contains some 600 alligators, from hatchlings to adults approaching 40 years of age, spread among a variety of enclosed pools, a swamp and a lagoon. A paved walking path winds through several indigenous animal exhibits — including snakes, lizards, tortoises and juvenile gators — before connecting to a wooden boardwalk that extends into the lush swamp.
“My friends all wanted to grow up to be policemen or firemen, but I was determined to become an alligator guy.”
– Wes Moore
“This is one of the only facilities in the world where you can watch an alligator in its natural habitat,” Moore says. “These big ones are wild animals that have been relocated here because they created a problem somewhere else.”
Almost all the adults have names — The Colonel, Pickles, Big Mo, Fertile Myrtle and Old Stumpy are just a few — and Moore knows them all by sight.
“They are as recognizable to me as people,” he says. “They each have distinguishing characteristics.”
However, the biggest “character” at Alligator Alley might be Moore himself.
“People often think I’m crazy for doing what I do,” admits the South Alabama native. “I don’t worry about that. I think what I do is awesome.”
From Farm to Alligator Park
Moore says his fascination with the animals began when he was 5 years old.
“This property used to belong to my grandfather, and back in the late ’60s, he acquired a few alligators to help keep the beaver population down in the farm pond,” says Moore, who is also an avid angler and dove hunter. “There was one, Old Joe, who would come at the sound of my granddad’s old Dodge pickup, and we would feed him fish and different things. It was the greatest thing in the world for a kid, and I became hooked. My friends all wanted to grow up to be policemen or firemen, but I was determined to become an alligator guy!”
“This is one of the only facilities in the world where you can watch an alligator in its natural habitat.”
– Wes Moore
Although Moore would later work in the corporate world as a communications professional, becoming an “alligator guy” was never far from his mind. In 2003, he decided that the time was right to pursue his goal. He stepped away from his 9-to-5 job and began converting his family farm into an alligator park.
“My wife, Elizabeth, thought I was nuts, of course,” he says with a grin. “But she knew it was no use trying to talk me out of it.”
The doors to Alligator Alley opened July 2, 2004.
“It was nothing like it is now,” Moore recalls. “I put a cigar box at the entrance with a sign that read, ‘Five bucks. Put in the box and walk down the path. Meet me down there.’”
Success was slow in coming, due mainly to a string of major hurricanes and a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, stunting tourism for several years. Nevertheless, Moore was determined to make Alligator Alley a viable business, and borrowing operating capital became a necessity.
Partnering With Alabama Ag Credit
“As you can imagine, the bankers didn’t know what to make of me,” he says with a laugh. “They would say things like, ‘What’s the collateral? How am I going to repo a bunch of alligators?’ When I began working with [Alabama Ag Credit’s] Andy Grant, the process became much easier to manage. Ag Credit has become a wonderful partner for us.”
Grant says Moore not only is a valued customer who is putting his family’s land to good economic use, but also has become an important member of the Gulf Coast community.
“Aside from bringing in tourist dollars, Wes and his staff provide fantastic educational programs for local schools,” says Grant. “I’m sure a lot of kids from this area have become interested in wildlife mainly because of their visits to the park. Wes’ passion for the great outdoors — and alligators in particular — is just contagious.”
That’s clear as Moore begins one of his daily feeding shows, entertaining several dozen visitors seated in bleachers behind a chain-link fence. Feeding the massive reptiles by hand, Moore is part stand-up comedian and part biologist, wielding an encyclopedic knowledge of alligators and a seemingly endless repertoire of one-liners. Speaking to the crowd via a wireless microphone, he is as much in his element as are the alligators.
“Some of these guys are here because they took somebody’s dog for a walk and didn’t return it,” he quips, tossing a rack of feral hog ribs into the gaping mouth of a 13-foot gator. “I call ’em Labrador retriever retrievers.”
The crowd gasps as the alligator, named Scraggles, swallows the ribs with a single mighty gulp.
“Down the hatch!” says Moore with a wide grin. “Who wants to go swimming now?”
– Mark Johnson
For more information, visit GatorAlleyFarm.com.