MOSCA — As Jay Young rolls his pants up and wades into the murky pond, Elvis emits a guttural hissing. It sounds like a pressurized water hose cleaning out a barrel.
Young taps the 12-foot-long, 600-pound alligator’s snout and the gnarly armored creature lunges forward, toothy maw wide.
“He still wants to eat me after all these years,” says Young, deftly dodging Elvis, a gator his father acquired in 1987 as a wee thing to help eat piles of fish guts.
Elvis was among the first residents of the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a geothermal oasis in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos. The San Luis Valley attraction ranks among the oddest on Colorado’s trophy shelf of tourist draws, luring about 40,000 visitors a year to one of the nation’s only alligator refuges outside of the South and Texas.
There are 270 alligators spread across 80 acres at Colorado Gators, plus two Nile crocodiles and a couple of spectacled caimans. Young’s dad, Erwin Young, bought the acreage in 1977 and started farming tilapia in 87-degree pools filled from geothermal wells. A decade later, overwhelmed by the carcasses of filleted fish, the Youngs bought a bunch of alligators to serve as a sort of natural garbage disposal.
It didn’t take long for the gators to draw visitors and the Young’s business plan moved away from selling fish. (He’s still farming fish, but as food for gators, not people.) Today, Jay Young travels the country rescuing all sorts of alligators, pythons, tortoises and iguanas.
“It’s such a cool story with how it started and the innovation over there,” says Kale Mortensen, the director of Visit Alamosa, which counts the gator park among its top draws. “It’s definitely a big part of our tourism economy.”
Carly Holbrook has spent 15 years marketing Colorado tourism attractions for both the Colorado Tourism Office and regional visitor bureaus. She always recommends a stop at Young’s gator menagerie out in the middle of nowhere, west of Great Sand Dunes National Park. She remembers being a teenager, posing with her siblings as she grasped a young gator, “with slightly frightened smiles,” she said.
She said she always walks out of Young’s oasis wondering “where the heck am I?”
“Jay is an excellent marketer of his unexpected and wacky offerings … and I totally agree that his persona and gator park are Tiger King-esque,” she says. “Not something you would expect to experience in Colorado.”
Most of the alligators Young has adopted, roughly 150, were illegal pets. They start cute, he says, but they outgrow that phase pretty quickly. Same with Young’s 29 tortoises, which can live more than 100 years and grow to 200 pounds.
“And they can be very destructive,” Young says as he sidesteps a tortoise shuffling through a muggy corridor of glowing glass tanks filled with snakes and lizards basking under bulbs.
One of the tanks has some alligator eggs. In more than 30 years of operation, Young has never nurtured gator eggs. The flow of rescues is so great, there’s no need to breed, he says. The gators try, but there’s “zero chance” gator eggs will last in Colorado’s climate. This is just an experiment, he says.
Exotic pet stores also provide a steady stream of new arrivals. Like the pig-nosed — or Fly River — turtle Young recently adopted when the owner of an exotic pet store in Texas passed away and his collection was dissolved.
“Check out these flippers,” he says, plucking the trembling turtle from a pond in the shadow of a fig tree planted in 1887.
Young merely points to a 135-pound alligator snapping turtle perched on a rock in a weedy indoor marsh. You don’t pick up Kong, he says.
Outsider, the gators are stacked up on the banks of lukewarm ponds, a dense, dangerous carpet that could feature prominently in any respectable nightmare. Young is still working on his plans to build a scuba lagoon, where divers can swim separated from gators by a plexiglass wall.
Just about everything that happens at the gator park fits well into the region’s “Mystic San Luis Valley” tourism marketing campaign. The Great Sand Dunes draw visitors, but the valley’s Colorado gator park and UFO Watchtower on Colorado 17 — the “Cosmic Highway” — keep tourists entertained and maybe around for a bit longer.
“We are full of unique little spots that people really enjoy,” Mortensen says.