This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Jay Young hasn’t had a lot of time to tally the losses. On Thursday, he paused from the heartbreaking task of pulling dead animals from the ashes of his burned reptile sanctuary in Mosca to start counting.
“Our biggest tortoise, Digger. He was 83 pounds. All the snakes. All the big pythons. All the lizards. Leopard geckos, crested geckos. Monitors. Tegus. About a week ago we got a 4-foot black-and-white tegu, which can be very mean but this one was a sweetheart. We could hold him and pet him. A 7-foot Asian monitor we rescued from Denver named Spartacus. Oh, and we lost our parrots. Ah, man,” Young said, choking up a bit. “It seems like every hour I remember something else that is gone. They were all like kids to us, you know.”
Young estimates the early-morning fire on Tuesday killed more than 100 animals at his Colorado Gators Reptile Park, an 80-acre geothermal oasis in the San Luis Valley that draws 40,000 visitors a year.
“Some of them we have had for decades,” he said. “Ah, it sucks. My heart is broken.”
Hundreds of animals survived the fire. All the fish and sharks. All 270 alligators and crocodiles. Firefighters and Young’s team were able to save eight of about 40 tortoises. Only one out of about 50 lizards survived: a bright yellow caiman lizard aptly named Phoenix.
Young said firefighters, in true heroic form, helped him carry several large dwarf caimans from tanks inside the burning building.
“Real heroes,” Young said of the firefighters from Mosca and Hooper. “It could have been so much worse if not for them.”
An employee who lives on the compound noticed smoke around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday and called for help. Young ran into the reptile compound — crowded with giant glass-walled booths and tanks — but it was too smoky to even see anything, he said.
He’s spent all of Tuesday and Wednesday prying through charred remnants of the hall where thousands of kids have posed for photos holding toothy caimans and pressed their noses to glass walls to ogle monster snakes and lizards. On Wednesday afternoon he found a red-footed tortoise, barely alive, burrowed in the blackened muck. Young is nursing him back to health.
Just as he has for most of the animals he’s rescued from all over the world.
“We lost a black-throated monitor who we cared for for weeks,” he said. “I spent morning and night with that lizard and she bounced back and was doing so well.”
Young’s dad, Erwin, bought the acreage outside Mosca in 1977 and started farming tilapia in pools of 87-degree water bubbling up from geothermal springs. Erwin soon bought a few alligators to help recycle the tilapia carcasses left over after selling filets. The gators drew gawkers and it didn’t take long for the Young family to adopt a new business plan. Today, the farmed fish feed hundreds of alligators and crocodiles Young has taken in from all over the country.
Young and his eight full-time employees are cleaning up. Next they will rebuild. (His family has started a GoFundMe campaign to help the recovery.) A state-of-the-art facility, he said, with solar power and geothermal heat. After decades of turning away animals, he says the new facility will enable him to once again begin rescuing large pythons, lizards and tortoises from owners overwhelmed by the size and long lives of their once-cute pets.
“I have no doubts that we will find more animals. We’ve already had friends across the country offering us animals for educational displays,” said Young, who plans to reopen his tourist attraction by May 1. “We will pick up the pieces and move forward. We have to focus on the positives right now.”