Every year we have a few new animals that become instant favorites for the Aquarium staff. This year we have all been going crazy for the baby American alligators in our Vanishing Animals gallery.
Aquarist Stacy Hammond explains what it’s like to care for these four little reptiles that have stolen our hearts:
When I was told I would be caring for the baby alligators this year, I was both ecstatic and a little nervous. I had no prior experience raising alligators and began my research by talking to colleagues and reading as much information as I could get my hands on.
The babies were born on a farm in Colorado and delivered to us back in early May. The staff immediately fell in love and nicknamed them after another famous reptile group: Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and Leonardo.
Before they could be placed in their exhibit, the four little ones were kept behind the scenes, where they awaited a routine check-up from our resident veterinary team. After receiving a clean bill of health, the squad was introduced to their new home where they slowly started to map out their territory.
They each claimed a part of the exhibit as their own. And while I occasionally catch them tussling over territory, the scrums never last too long, and they typically snuggle with each other a few moments later.
In order to ensure each alligator is being properly fed, I implemented behavioral training that taught them to go to designated stations for feeding time. As you can imagine, teaching an alligator to do anything on command is not an easy feat.
Each day I would place a target pole next to a piece of food when feeding each alligator. This is called targeting and is a technique typically used by our marine mammal staff. The animal learns through repetitive association that performing an action will get them a reward. In this case, the action is the alligator going to its designated colored shape and the reward is food!
In the beginning, I needed to expedite this training so we would practice multiple times a day. In an effort to not overfeed them, the reward during these sessions would be ice cubes or sugarless jello. After a few weeks, the alligators began responding to their targets and would run to their locations before the food was even present!
Are you wondering how long these baby alligators will stay babies? We expect them to be comfortable in their current environment for about a year. At that time, they will start to outgrow the space and we’ll send them back home to Colorado. It’s almost like we’re babysitting them until then!
We hope you’ll visit this staff favorite in the Vanishing Animals gallery soon so that you can see these baby animals in person. In the meantime, you can learn more about them and other animal success stories on our website.