What do you read to an alligator during a hurricane?
If your name is Savannah Boan and you're on a personal journey to get people to adore the slithery reptiles through your work at Gatorland, then it's going to be The Genesis of Animal Play, of course.
As Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida and left millions in the dark, Boan was one of several employees at the kitschy, old-Florida attraction who rode out the storm through the night under the watchful red eyes of the more than 2,000 alligators and crocodiles that call Gatorland home. As the hurricane advanced, park president Mark McHugh made a video in front of a gang of gigantic gators where he said this wasn't Gatorland's first rodeo with a hurricane.
"None of our animals are going anywhere here at Gatorland, so if you see an alligator floating down your street there at your house, it ain't ours," a sweaty McHugh said. "Don't call us."
Days after the storm continued on its destructive path through Central Florida north, Gatorland reopened on Wednesday after regaining power. Wearing blue-green eye shadow resembling the watery topaz of a Florida beach and bright red lipstick, Boan was ready to get back to work in the insufferable heat and oppressive humidity, though she was stuck wearing a denim dress because her camouflage pants were dirty and the power was out at her house. As anyone who's worn makeup in the Sunshine State knows, you've usually got about 10 minutes of a flawless mug before it melts down your neck in a contoured puddle. Boan's trick to keeping her makeup intact while she shoots meat chunks into the toothy mouths of hungry alligators is Hard Candy setting spray.
"It's like putting hairspray on your face," she says.
On a tour through the nearly 70-year-old theme park, Boan points to the lagoons and enclosures containing American alligators, gargantuan saltwater crocodiles and Cuban crocodiles. As Irma made its way through Central Florida, the alligators sank to the bottom and hid underwater, occasionally coming up for breaths, though the Cuban crocodiles stayed up all night.
"They can stay down there a couple hours if they're not moving around," says park director Mike Hileman, his face reddened by years of gator wrestling and a preference for the outdoors. "But just like we humans, if we're in the water exerting energy, we can't hold our breath as long. Some of them come up every 15 to 20 minutes, others can stay under for two hours. Some of them have more curious personalities, so they'll pop up more often."
There wasn't much to do to prepare for the alligators and crocodiles staying outside during the hurricane – Hileman says water was pumped out of the lakes to lower them slightly in case of flooding and staff double-checked the secure fences that go around the 110-acre theme park. Gatorland's leucistic alligators, panthers, tortoises, birds and a rare pink-eyed albino gator named Pearl were locked in secure buildings inside their exhibit. Snakes were double-bagged and locked inside their secured enclosures as well. For the most part, things went smoothly, though one employee did have to chase down a flamingo through some water (the leggy pink bird was caught safely). Before the hellish, howling winds of Irma whipped into a frenzy and buckets of rain poured from the sky, Boan went outside with a flashlight to see what the reptiles were doing. Peering back at her through the darkness were their glowing red eyes. Like a billion stars in the sky, she thought.
Inside Gatorland's carpeted conference rooms, employees hunkered down through Irma in the company of Jabari, a four-month-old exotic African serval confiscated from his owners by state wildlife officials, and Bullet, a 4-year-old runt alligator born with only three legs. Through the storm, Boan held Bullet in her lap (sans mouth tape) like a scaly toddler and read aloud The Genesis of Animal Play – not to educate him on the origins and evolution of play in people and critters, but to condition Bullet to recognize the sound of her voice for future work with visitors.
"No one ever thinks that crocodiles and alligators are very smart, like that's the common belief," Boan, who oversees alligator and crocodile enrichment, says. "But I think they're way more intelligent than we give them credit for. They prove it every single day. Everyone just says they're just huge man-eaters, they want to kill you all the time, but really they just want to hide. So, I'm trying to change perception, and my life goal is for people to love alligators and crocodiles."
At SeaWorld Orlando and the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, employees followed similar procedures to securely lock up animals. In a statement, SeaWorld said it secured orcas, five dolphins that were transported from the Florida Keys, and other marine animals in their pools and habitats while birds, small mammals and reptiles were moved to indoor locations. The theme park's zoological employees stayed through the hurricane to care for the animals around the clock. The Central Florida Zoo in Sanford followed similar procedures without major incident, though spokesperson Stephannie Allen says the attraction, which sits on protected wetlands, was inundated by water. After the floods cleared, massive catfish and crawfish were stranded on concrete paths and inside barrels. Workers tossed them back into the creek and are currently working on clearing debris and uprooted trees.
After Irma, Gatorland's alligators and crocodiles crawled out of the water in a pack headed toward their islands for a little tanning under the sun, and Boan and other Gatorland employees went right back to work, eager to do a job many of them love.
"If there's an Emerald City, this is it for me," Boan says. "The reptiles probably didn't think much about the hurricane. They probably just thought, that girl, the crazy thing that feeds us, is back."