Thanks to a unique cage design and training program, the alligators and staff at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park are safe now during storms and flooding events.
“After Hurricane Hermine and the park flooded we knew we had to do something to keep the alligators and staff safe. We designed this program specifically for these alligators,” Wildlife Care Supervisor Tricia Fowler said.
With assistance from the Friends of the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, funds were made available to purchase specially designed alligator cages that allow the alligators to float with the storm surge yet keeps them contained so they can't escape into the park or river.
In 2018 park manager Kim Tennille, along with Fowler, supervisor and park rangers Andrea Junkunc and Darin Wilson, developed a safe way to train each alligator to respond to various commands for which the state awarded the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park with the 2018 Prudential Productivity Award and Team Plaque Award for the Alligator Conditioning and Training Team.
The program is designed to implement use of regular voice commands often used in obedience training. Only these commands include the alligators seeing orange.
“Alligators see in color and they know their names. All seven alligators were here when the state took over in 1989, “ Fowler said.
Rangers begin by calling the alligators by name, one at a time. They begin by calling Hook first, one of the largest of the seven resident gators.
“Come Hook. Hook come.” the staff calls repeatedly. After just minutes Hook appears as he swims to the edge of the bank and notices the bright orange flag being waved by a staff member. He begins a slow walk to towards the flag and right into his cage where a treat for his efforts await. One done, six more to go.
Each alligator takes its turn being called and coaxed with an orange flag into their private cage that has a name plate on the outside. Most are compliant but sometimes there's one that may need extra coaxing, meaning an extra treat, to be fully inside its cage. Five of the seven alligators were loaded in only 20 minutes. During the month of August all seven alligators took 30 minutes or less to load.
“Everyone has a job to do and we try to keep the alligators stimulated. Training and conditioning is a form of enrichment for them,” replied Andrea Junkunc, wildlife care staff.
The cages are large enough, seven to 11 feet long, to custom fit each alligator. Once all alligators are inside with the doors fully secured, they will remain for a short time allowing volunteers to quickly clean the habitat of any debris and rake the rocks back into place. Recently special volunteers pulled weeds and tended to the new floating wetlands that have been added to the alligator lagoon.
The heat this summer has proven to be a good year for training and conditioning the alligators. And the program has proven beneficial in other ways. Not only is it much safer and easier for staff to remove the alligators from their habitat into a secure area for storm surges and floods, but also for medical visits and work projects around the lagoon. But soon the weather will get cool and the alligators will become less active.
“We work with the alligators about once a week during the summer months. It's based on the temperatures. If it's too cold they won't be motivated and it's not good to feed them then. If we have really warm days and they are active we may do a training but not as often during the Winter months,” said Fowler.
When training takes place interpreters are available to provide visitors information about this award winning program from the safety of the observation boardwalk where the public can watch Hook, Fiona, Chinchilla, Marilyn, Socrates, Ranger and Uno arrive slowly to their personalized cage.