When the baby alligators start to chirp inside their shells, visitors and guides at Insta-Gator Ranch hold them as tenderly as if they were chicks.
“The alligator could come bounding out in a second, or it could just sit there because they had been sleeping, but an alligator will be born in your hands,” said John Price, owner and founder of Insta-Gator Ranch in Covington.
It’s hatching season for Louisiana’s signature reptile, and from now through early September, the gator ranch has around 800 alligator eggs ready to hatch in the hands of visitors — an attraction Insta-Gator has had in place since it opened to the public in 2001.
“I first started hatching alligators in 1989. I did it with a few friends, and we thought it was really neat. Several came back the following year to do it again,” Price said. “To me, it seemed too great of a thing to allow it not be seen by others.”
It’s turned out to be a successful sideline for Insta-Gator, which also raises the reptiles for meat and leather.
Price grew up in Metairie but spent a lot of time hunting and fishing in Larose, where his family owned property.
Later, as a representative of land owners in specialized land leases, Price stumbled upon a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries program that fascinated him: alligator ranching.
“The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries decided to protect the alligator back in the 1960s. Their first step was to make it illegal to kill alligators,” Price said. But the agency soon realized that wasn’t enough to protect the species. “All that did was change the legal public harvesting to illegal poacher harvesting.”
In addition, despite its big, bad reputation, alligators are susceptible to many predators in nature.
“Anything that eats meat in the wild eats a baby alligator,” said Price. “Wildlife and Fisheries studies established that only six to eight out of every 100 eggs laid in the marsh hatch and grow to become a 4-foot alligator; all the rest of them die in the form of the egg or an alligator under 4 feet.”
The Wildlife and Fisheries Department went out into the marsh at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana and harvested all the alligator eggs they could find. They incubated, hatched and raised the young gators to 4 feet long, then released them in the marsh.
“In three short years, they dramatically changed the population of alligators in the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge. In 1985, they opened up the program statewide for those willing to raise alligators and return them to the marsh,” Price said.
About 35 alligator ranches in Louisiana participate in the program, harvesting as many eggs as they can find in state marshes and returning 12 percent of the gators to the wild as 4-footers. The other 88 percent are slaughtered for meat and leather. Insta-Gator claims to be the only ranch in the state that sells tickets to the public to witness gators hatching.
Alligator nests can be located only from the air. Every year, Price flies over the marshes in his Ultralight plane, seeking out alligator nests to harvest. Prices’ son and employees scoot around in an airboat below and pick them up.
“We pick up the eggs and put them all into a basket. We put the basket into an incubator, which keeps the eggs at 89 degrees,” Price said.
The predictable gestation period makes it possible to schedule audiences when the eggs hatch. “Every egg in the nest will be ready to hatch at the same time,” Price said. “Every nest, though, will hatch over a period of three weeks.”
When visitors are not witnessing the miracle of life, they can take part in a 90-minute tour of the ranch. Throughout the year, visitors can see, touch, feed and hold some of the 1,000 alligators at Insta-Gator, ranging from 9-inch hatchlings to 8-footers.
“We are open year-round for all the activities, except the gator hatching,” Price said. “Aug. 12 to Sept. 6 is the only time during the year that you get to have an alligator hatch in your hands.”