Animal ambassadors like Casper are a vital part of awareness and conservation outreach for many private sectors and the AZA.
The American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
It’s no secret that reptiles get a bad rep for being considered cold blooded killers. Although they can be powerful, strange, dangerous and different, they can also be great examples and representatives of reptile enthusiasm and conservation. Animal ambassadors are a vital part of awareness and conservation outreach for many species. At the Everglades Outpost in Florida, wildlife biologist and photographer Christopher Gillette runs a unique close up experience with one of North America’s most iconic reptiles, the American alligator. The Outpost is a private, nonprofit organization that rescues wildlife and exotic animals including lemurs, panthers, foxes, and many reptiles. Many of its 500+ alligator rescue residents are “nuisance alligators” that were destined to be destroyed but were instead given a permanent home at the rescue. A nuisance alligator is one that showed up in a backyard, got in a swimming pool, ate the neighbor's dog, or caused a problem for a homeowner somewhere. The state of Florida does not allow the relocation or release of nuisance alligators due to their homing ability where they will return to same backyard, even if relocated many miles away, so the only two options allowed by the state are for the gators to be killed or put in captivity. Sadly, 99% of Florida's 7,000-8,000 yearly nuisance alligators are killed, so these are the very lucky few who get to live out their lives at the sanctuary. Once on the brink of extinction, the Southeast US now has millions of wild gators, and some cross paths with scared homeowners and suburbia.
Alligator Ambassador Casper
The Everglades Outpost offers a permanent and safe home for these rescuees, and uses them to spread awareness on important topics involving nature and wildlife. Their dedicated staff and volunteers prioritize safety, wellness, and enrichment for all animals rescued here. The Outpost is also a safe haven for exotic pets who have been discarded, including impressive animals like tigers, foxes, primates, and more. Casper, an alligator rescue who has worked alongside Chris for more than 10 years, resides at the Outpost happily. Alligators are considered a primitive reptilian, with small brain to body ratios, but this does not mean they are stupid in any way. With proper training, respect, and knowledge, alligators can be easily conditioned and safely interacted with because of their predictability. This has both hurt and helped them. For example, feeding wild gators is illegal because they instantly associate humans with food. This causes them to lose their fear of humans almost instantly (and permanently), which makes them approach anyone thinking they will get fed. This is the source of many of Florida's nuisance alligators issues, and why we say “a fed alligator is a dead alligator” as they will likely be euthanized by a trapper.
At the same time, their stable predictability has made them one of the greatest ambassador animals for reptile conservation, which is what handler Christopher Gillette uses for his up close underwater gator tours. This no-touch experience allows wildlife photographers, divers, reptile enthusiasts, or just the adventurous person to get a safe, up close experience with one of the largest reptiles of the United States. With no experience required, trained staff and head keeper Chris uses his behavioral knowledge of Casper to closely monitor the situation and ensure safety of all involved. He also offers incredible wildlife photography packages with the experience! You can sign up through his social media pages and website. If you are considering a close up alligator experience, never attempt to approach or interact with potentially dangerous wildlife on your own, and keep in mind this experience is done in a controlled environment with trained staff. With responsible facilities, handlers, and an informed individual, animal ambassadors like Casper can provide amazing and unique experiences that prove again and again to be one of the most effective methods for awareness and conservation outreach, especially for misunderstood reptiles!