Beaumont – When it comes to Cajun lineage in the Lone Star State, southeast Texas is a good place to start. Beaumont has a big assortment of down on the bayou businesses but there is one that will croc your world. Gator Country.
Gary Saurage is the proprietor of Gator Country, a place right on the side of Interstate 10 that’s home to hundreds of gators. Gary risks life and limb daily to deal with these deadly animals that have been around for a millions of years. “People do say I’m crazy all the time, but you know what I say to them? They’re crazy. You know why? They’re sitting at a job in front of a computer all day that they hate. Look what I get to do all day. Who’s really crazy,” said Gary. “When you walk in here, we’re going to hand you a baby alligator, we’re going to hand you a snake. We’re going to teach you a bunch of stuff. This absolutely is on people’s bucket lists.” said Gary.
But it’s not just Gary risking it all to put on a really good show, so does his wife Shannon. Her specialty is snakes but that doesn’t mean she won’t wrangle one of the big gators when needed. Gary and Shannon’s place is sort of like a zoo, rescue facility, and reptile research center all wrapped into one big park and that’s a lot to chew. “There’s nowhere else in Texas you’re going to go and get this experience. Bar none,” stated Gary.
Shannon has only been working with Gary for a few years but she got in on the gator action as soon as she could. “People will tell you that alligators have the little pea brains, and they have no thought process. But I can tell you, I have taught him to come. The only thing I haven’t taught him lately is how to sit down and roll over,” explained Shannon.
Now the big gators get a lot of attention. You’ve got Big Al who’s 88 years old and measures in at 13 feet 4 inches. Then there’s Big Tex. At 13 feet, 11 inches long Gary doesn’t get in the ring with this gator. That’s why Gary handed me a long grappling stick to feed the gator. “He’s going to come up. When he does, I want you to drop that meat in his mouth. We don’t hand to him. He is a dangerous son of a gun,” explained Gary as we braved feeding the gigantic alligator.
But there’s also little gators that need lots of attention. “There are a lot of injured animals out there. And somebody’s got to take care of them,” said Shannon as we showed me around the injured alligator tank. “So you see this one right here, that’s missing her top jaw? Her top jaw got bit off by another alligator. Now, because she doesn’t have a top jaw, she can no longer feed by herself. So her only way to stay alive is in a facility where we take tongs, we reach over there, and we have to put it into the back of her palatal valve and feed her. This one right here, this is Tank. He came out of a local refinery tank. He’s missing his bottom jaw. A piece of equipment ripped the whole bottom jaw off. And he, too, has to be fed by tongs. These guys here will be with us for the rest of their life, and they’re going to get tons of food and love,” expressed Shannon.
Not into these prehistoric looking creatures? Well, they got snakes too. “My all-time favorite room, this room belongs to me, and it is the venomous snake room. This right here is a timber rattlesnake. It has two toxins. It has a neurotoxin and a hemotoxin. Meaning that it affects your blood as well as shuts down your organs. You get bit by that sucker, you better find God,” explained Shannon.
Getting a close encounter with a timber rattler was terrifying so why not jump in with the gators? Shannon brought me into the pin with a huge gator named Cuddles and all I hoped is that I didn’t look like brisket. My first go around with a gator was a little muffed as I missed Cuddle’s massive mouth by a mile but my second go around was a lot more successful.
Fortunately, I didn’t lose any appendages. “I’ll tell you what though, you would not believe how much you need your thumb. You cannot zip your pants without your thumb. That’s a true story,” joked Gary.
So whenever you want to get down with the gators, use your medulla oblongata and take a trip to Gator County in Beaumont. Well worth a stop on The Texas Bucket List. “Most of these reptiles are things that most people fear, and it’s been something that’s been taught since we were younger. You walk up on a snake, they go, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a snake. It’s a poisonous snake. Get away from it.’ Well, until you really go and educate, these reptiles need voices too, and they have a reason for being here. Trust me, when you get educated and you start handling these beautiful creatures, you start falling in love with them,” expressed Shannon.