If you were to ask an American what state they think of when they hear the word “alligator,” most would probably mention either Louisiana or Florida. What they don’t know is that the largest alligator ever found in America is actually in Beaumont, Texas.
Beaumont is home to Gator Country Park, a 15-acre preserve and adventure park that cares for more than 450 alligators, crocodiles, and various other reptiles, most of which were rescued as “nuisance” animals from people’s yards or pools and some that were carried away and stranded during floods or hurricanes. Gator Country is also the home of Big Tex, who holds the national record as the largest alligator ever caught in the US at nearly 14 feet long and weighing in at 1,000 pounds.
When Tropical Storm Imelda swept across Texas, Gator Country was hit with a swell of floodwaters as a result of the 43 inches of rain that fell on the area. When the waters finally began to recede and park employees could take stock, they discovered that Big Tex, along with around three dozen other, smaller gators was unaccounted for.
Beaumont residents who’ve recently seen the summer horror movie Crawl, no doubt had several bad nights’ sleep, knowing that the reptiles, Big Tex, in particular, were on the loose and could be lurking in the area.
In order to find and recapture the giant missing alligator, Gator Country used Jon Warner.
Warner is the head of the alligator program for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. Hailing from the Midwest, Warner holds a Ph.D. he earned for work in Africa, studying alligators as indicators of an ecosystem’s health. He spent several days tracking Big Tex.
Warner said that, at first, it wasn’t clear whether or not Big Tex had actually gone missing, but even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have gone very far. Sure enough, the enormous gator was found near a pond on the Gator Country grounds. The park has confirmed that the gator was being taken back to where he belongs, prompting sighs of relief from those who were worried he might turn up in their yards.
Warner noted that there are a number of other gators that are still missing, but they’re all much smaller, falling into the three- to five-foot range; most likely, they probably swam over the fence during the worst of the flooding. According to a report in the Beaumont Enterprise, the animals which are still on the loose aren’t an attack threat to the local population. They are highly acclimated to human beings and are even used to being fed by hand.
It’s not that unusual for animals to periodically get washed away during major storms. After Hurricane Harvey passed through Texas in 2017, Gator Country had to round up about 50 animals who had escaped the park after the water level rose higher than the four-foot fences the facility uses.
Big Tex’s escape and recovery occurred during the middle of Texas’s alligator hunting season, which runs through the month of September. That put him at increased risk until he was recovered. Warner says that people still need special permits to hunt alligators, but that hunting helps with population management. Florida and Louisiana harvest the largest number of alligators in the nation; Texas is third. Shooting an alligator outside of the proper hunting season is illegal and could result in being fined.
Across Texas, about 1000 calls for help with “nuisance” alligators are received each year. Warner works with about 70 licensed professionals, a number of them at Gator Country, who remove and relocate alligators who have ended up where they don’t belong.
In addition to the escaped alligators, Gator Country took some other damage from the storm. All of the buildings flooded, resulting in the need to remove and replace the bottom foot of sheetrock on all the walls and the stadium seating where visitors would usually watch Big Al, the former record holder for size before Big Tex’s arrival, was underwater and had a large alligator statue broken across it.
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The park’s founder, Gary Saurage, is expecting that, due to repairs, it will take some time before they reopen, even after all the alligators have been recaptured. He hopes that they will be open to the public again by March of next year.