By Hannah Richardson
After COVID-19 halted the fun found at popular attractions, several Natchitoches Parish residents were disappointed with the closure of the Natchitoches Alligator Park in Bayou Pierre. Last month, owners Terry and Deborah Rogers announced that the park would be closing, then at the end of June announced it would actually be coming back under new ownership. Under the leadership of new owners Gary and Shannon Saurage, the park plans to come back for the public’s enjoyment at the beginning of next year’s season, including a few new attractions and switching from being open only on weekends to seven days a week.
Photos of the Alligator Park by Hannah Richardson
Terry Rogers said the park has been here for over 24 years and is the largest in Louisiana. The park is home to around 350 large alligators and also featured other creatures such as turtles, snakes, aviary birds, deer, goats, etc. It was unfortunate timing they couldn’t open the park for the season due to the pandemic just getting started in March. “By the time they could let us open, it was only at 25% capacity,” said Rogers. “I thought at that point, I’m 72 and it was time to close.” Rogers found the Saurages, who own the largest alligator park in Texas. When he approached them with the idea of taking over, they said they couldn’t wait to get started. “It was a perfect fit,” said Rogers. “That way, it’s not going to close. So many people were sending in their sad remarks. We want to thank all of our patrons for coming and being return customers over and over, year after year. They all loved it, and I realize they were all saddened by my announcement. Less than a month after that, [the Saurages] showed up and it’s really perfect. We thought if we were going to sell, it has to be to someone that does this. Gary is just as experienced as I am.”
Gary Saurage, alongside wife Shannon, of Beaumont, Texas, have built their alligator preserve, Gator Country, from the ground up, much like the Rogers did with the Natchitoches Alligator Park. Saurage has dedicated his career to giving alligators a safe haven. He came across a park that was overgrown and abandoned and it is now one of the biggest attractions in Beaumont, boasting over 450 American alligators, crocodiles and reptiles and one alligator named the largest in captivity in the states- Big Tex, at 14 feet and over 1,000 pounds. The two also own another park in South Padre Island. Saurage and his team’s adventures were the main focus of the CMT series “Gator 911” and were also featured in segments on Animal Planet.
Saurage commended Terry on a job well done on the Natchitoches Alligator Park and both he and Shannon are excited to carry on this legacy. “These guys have done a great job in building a foundation. [The park] has been here for a long time. We’re just coming in to give it a new face-lift. With the experiences we’ve gotten over running parks for the last 20 years, we have no doubt that this park will just keep growing from here,” said Saurage. “[The Rogers] have had a great run here,” said Shannon. “We’ll have a Wall of Fame of them with their story. No matter what, they are going to be family for the rest our lives. It’s a small group of people we have in the reptile world and we stay very close with them.”
“Like Terry said, to find someone who not only knows alligators, but business of alligators… it was like a piece of a puzzle, it fit just like that,” said Gary.
The new owners are bringing in their most experienced manager, Leo Parfait and his family, who will arrive in the middle of September. A house will be built on the property for the Parfaits, just as the Saurages live on the property of Gator Country. One new attraction to the park will be an exhibit of venomous snakes common to the area for visitor education, which Shannon will handle. Visitors will also have a chance to hold and interact with baby alligators, constrictor snakes and more.
The new owners also plan to bring in a pool 6-8 inches in depth for children to interact with baby alligators, with its mouth taped for the alligator’s and the children’s safety. Saurage said he wants to create experiences for children they will always remember. “It’s such a valuable experience, because children learn how alligators swim with their tails. It’s a very educational process and one of the most successful parts of our parks,” he said. The Saurages want to teach the public all about the American alligator. “All of those things that are very important for educational purposes, that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. To keep visitors informed, the owners want to have staff easily found all over the park.
Saurage said they would add five more full-time staff members and five to six full-time interns. Yes, there will also be an internship program at the park where they will be housed for three months at a time, as the new owners have done at their Texas park with interns from all over the United States. Interns will need to have completed at least one year of college and in a related major (biology, zoology, etc.) “We teach them how to run a park from bottom to top,” said Shannon. “They get financials as well as working with Texas Parks and Wildlife, Louisiana Fish and Game, feeding, etc. They get the dirtiest of jobs and the coolest of jobs!” Before the park had four staff members a day and now it will be at least doubled. “I just believe that when you are walking around, you ought to be holding a baby alligator or pet snakes for visitors to see and hold. One of the biggest differences is the hands-on experience,” said Gary. Shannon added that at their park, staff members are easily seen wearing red and ready to help visitors with any questions they might have.
Now, the two will be hard at work cleaning, repainting and renovating the Natchitoches park, now dubbed Gator Country Louisiana. The Saurages want visitors come in and just be wowed at the park. “When they pull up, they’re gonna know,” said Gary.
Gator Country Louisiana will have a soft opening in March and an official opening date is set for April 1, 2021.