Nathan Wilson | Reporter
As spring weather settles on Natchitoches, residents aren’t the only ones enjoying the longer days and warmer weather. Alligators celebrate their April and May mating season by becoming aggressive and loud. Nowhere is this more obvious than Louisiana Gator Country north of Powhatan. “In the morning sometimes you hear the majority of the males bellowing throughout the park,” says park manager Leo Parfait. “Outside in the natural habitat, yes it is very dangerous.”
Parfait describes the bellowing behavior. “The male alligator will pop its head and pop its tail out the water and what it’ll do is make a huge growl sound,” Parfait says. He explains the large and noisy male isn’t the one people should be worried about. “Your male is not the chaser, it’s your female that’s the chaser,” he says.
Parfait recommends people behave cautiously. “You have people that fish, they’re boating or people kayaking,” he says. “Most people don’t know there’s momma sitting right on the side of the nest, and she’s going to do like any human mother does, protect her babies.” He explains the alligators aren’t hunting for people. “She’s not out there to kill you, but she’s out there to taunt you, and put fear into you and let you know don’t get around her babies.”
Lethal alligator attacks are rare. A man killed in Slidell in 2021 during flooding from Hurricane Ida was the first recorded in Louisiana since the 1700s, but non-fatal attacks can be serious and Parfait has personally met three victims. “It’s not for people to cancel their vacations,” he says about his warning. “Just be aware of your surroundings.”
Being cautious means knowing what to look out for Parfait explains. “How you know there’s baby alligators, you’ll here a small chirping sound,” he says. “They don’t distinguish that’s my baby so you go protect your baby,” he says. “All female alligators will protect (baby) alligators around.”
Female alligators have to be vigilant. Their babies are tiny and defenseless. “Baby alligators are born 6 inches long,” Parfait says. “They do learn to eat on their own like small frogs (and) crickets.” He turns to the list of animals that eat the young alligators. “Birds, bass fish, snakes will try to eat the little babies,” he says. “Hawks will fly down and grab them”
The male alligators can grow several feet longer than the females but they don’t make for good father figures. “The male doesn’t even protect the babies. He’s waiting to eat the babies,” Parfait explains. “Mom would try to do her best to protect them, (but) you can imagine if you had a 13 footer trying to eat the babies, momma’s only 9 feet. She has no power, she has no strength to compare.”
“Other predators out there eat eggs,” Parfait begins a new list. He names raccoons and grey herons, but emphasizes another animal. “Feral hogs, they’re number one because they stomp the nest and eat all the eggs,” he says.
The unhatched alligators are even more vulnerable than the babies, and female alligators will defend the nest aggressively, but they prefer to keep their eggs hidden. He describes the mother’s process. “The mother gets all the vegetation around like dead leaves, twigs, and stuff like that so she can make a firm nest,” he says. “They cover their babies just like turtles.” Since a mother alligator will attack threats to her hidden nest, he warns people should watch out for what look “like a huge ant hill.”
The mother stays close to her nest for the first two weeks, but once she ventures away Parfait and his team collect the eggs to place in an incubator. He reveals the alligators inside are fragile. “How the egg is laid is how it has to be re-laid into a bucket. If you turn it or anything like that you destroy the egg,” he says. His team has specific steps to follow when retrieving them. “You pull off the top of the nest until you start seeing an egg, and then the top ones go on the bottom and the bottom ones go on the top. We take a permanent marker and write an x and a number on the side of it because that number indicates how many eggs you have,” he says. “You can’t tilt it, you can’t turn it, you can’t flip it.”
While the mother protects the nest, she’s also making an important decision. “The very first two weeks, the mother has a choice between all males and all females,” Parfait says. The female determines the sex by controlling the temperature of her eggs he explains. “86 or below creates the females, 86 and above creates the males.” Mixed clutches are possible, but rare and caused by inconsistency in how the eggs are insulated.
When they hatch, baby alligators look a little different than the adults. “They’re born with 81 teeth in their mouth.” Parfait says. “ The 81st tooth, which is in the center of their snout will help them pop their shell. That’s the only tooth they actually lose. They will continue to have 80 teeth and will generate over 3,000 teeth in their lifespan.”
Not all the eggs hatch Parfait explains. “The mother will have 35 to 40 eggs. Out of that 35 to 40 eggs you might not have a whole clutch that’s actually born.” He has seen clutches where only half the eggs hatch baby gators, but he also recalls a personal best. “The most we’ve hatched is 35,” he says.
Parfait describes the alligators like pets. He even gives them names. “If you do name them, you have to say the same name over and over in the same pitch, and they’ll pick it up.” He explains why this works. “It’s due to the vibration, because they have sensory pits in their mouth, so they react to that same calling they know,” he says. “Some parks play music to attract the alligators to the boat.”
The ability to recognize sound is why male alligators bellow during mating season. They’re not growling; instead they’re calling their future mate. “They choose the female that is attracted,” he says. “From there they do the mating. I don’t know how you’re going to put it in your paper as to how they do that, but once the mating is done, 63 days later is when you’re going to start having baby alligators.”
As for the dangers of mating season, Parfait isn’t afraid. “We’re not out there grabbing the 12, 13 footers,” he says. “Kids get to come out here, hold the baby alligator and other reptiles.” He also reveals why he loves his work. “I can actually take care of them and learn their personalities,” he says. “I love it because it’s just a passion of mine, just dealing with a prehistoric animal.”
While some alligator farms operate to provide meat and leather, Parfait describes Louisiana Gator Country differently, “We’re more of a sanctuary. We’re all about education and teaching the kids about the animals,” he says. “We all know that Louisiana is the heart of alligators.”
Nathan Wilson | Reporter