The Alligator Farm: From roadside attraction to accredited zoo

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There’s Americana, then there’s Floridana. If it’s Floridana, there has to be oranges, palm trees and, of course, alligators involved. Part of that state image branding is thanks to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park, one of Florida’s oldest zoological attractions.

Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the privately-owned family business has survived and thrived since its founding in 1893. According to current owner David C. Drysdale, the secret to their success is the ability to attract talented staff, constantly make improvements, and add new exhibits and features.

The park has been in the Drysdale family since 1937, when W.I. Drysdale and F. Charles Usina purchased it from the original owners. This duo ran the company together until Usina’s death in 1966. W.I. Drysdale operated the facility alone until he retired in 1970. At that point, the park’s future was in doubt, but family loyalty kept it going strong. W.I. Drysdale told his son that if he had no interest in the business, they would just sell it.

“At the time, my brother was in medical school and I had just graduated from college with an engineering degree,” Drysdale said. “But the thought of selling seemed wrong, so the current course was somewhat inevitable.”

Drysdale never looked back. “There is always something new and exciting to learn,” he said. “Whether it is related to an animal research project, expansion plans, or strategies for the future, it is never boring.”

The park currently has 50 employees and draws around 200,000 visitors a year.

Part of the talented staff Drysdale credits is John Brueggen, director and general manager. Brueggen has been with the park 15 years.

Brueggen said the reason the Alligator Farm is still here when other Florida attractions have faded into the past is because of the owner’s “willingness to invest in the place.”

But let’s give those who make the zoo home a little credit, too.

Attractions like Maximo, the massive 1,250-pound fan favorite or the 21-foot reticulated python, believed to be the largest in captivity in the world, are the real reason people visit.

“People are impressed with big things and great numbers. We give them both,” Brueggen said. “Alligators and crocodiles are just compelling creatures. They’re as close to dinosaurs as we’re ever going to get.”

Some of the gators lounging in the lagoon look like they’ve been around since the founding. A giant Galapagos Tortoise has lived here since the 1930s. This place defines “living history,” but it’s not trying to be a historic site.

“We like to say we’re 120 years old but we don’t want to look like it,” Brueggen said.

From humble beginnings to fame

The park has grown from a little roadside attraction to a world-class American zoo accredited by the Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. Their AZA accreditation, earned for the first time in 1989 and renewed every five years, is a “big deal,” Brueggen said. This distinction makes them a part of the elite club of 200 AZA-accredited zoos in North America, allowing them to be part of a cooperative breeding program instrumental in saving endangered species.

The Alligator Farm not only has the world’s largest collection of alligators, but also is the only zoo in the world that showcases every kind of crocodilian (alligators, crocodiles, Cayman and gharials). Thanks to these bragging rights, the park also attracts renowned researchers and international media attention.

That’s a lot of progress from the early days in 1880 when George Reddington and Felix Fire captured local alligators to capitalize on the dual fascination-fear factor the dangerous and mysterious reptiles naturally inspire. Back then, there was an attraction called the Burning Springs Museum in the same area. Brueggen described it as a freshwater spring where the owner would pour gas over the water, set it on fire … and tourists would watch it burn. Reddington and Fire thought if people would pay to see that, they’d surely pay to see captive alligators.

How right they were. The Anastasia Island tram took visitors from the city to the beach, so it was easy for tourists to visit the burning springs, the beach and the gators all in one outing. This humble gator business was the direct predecessor for the official founding of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Museum of Marine Curiosities in 1893.

At that time it was located in what is now Anastasia State Park. However, after years of dealing with erosion, storms and fires, the park moved inland to its current location on Anastasia Blvd. in the ’20s.

Overcoming tragic events

Around 1934, Reddington bought out Fire’s interest in the Alligator Farm but kept him on as a curator and taxidermist until his death in 1953. Reddington and his wife Nellie sold the attraction to W.I. Drysdale and Usina in 1937. Within months of their purchase, however, another disastrous fire destroyed the main buildings. They not only rebuilt, but vastly expanded their collection. They acquired the three oldest alligator attractions in Florida through The Campbell acquisition and then collections from the North Miami Zoo, the Daytona Beach Alligator Farm, the Daytona Airport Zoo and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Along with alligators, they brought in ostriches, crocodiles, Galapagos Tortoises, monkeys, birds and many other examples of Florida wildlife. They also opened a taxidermy shop and a museum.

These significant collections made it an important site for international scientific research. Comprehensive research projects have focused on everything from the mating habits to bite force, and include clients such as National Geographic.

When Drysdale took over in 1970, he added a nature trail, roofed theater and open amphitheater for shows. With the cooperation of the Florida Audubon Society, the rookery was improved. In the late 1980s, National Geographic filmed much of its television show, “The Realm of the Alligator” here.

To celebrate their 100-year anniversary in 1993, the park opened “Land of Crocodiles” to showcase all 23 species of the world’s crocodilians. In 2001, they added the Anastasia Island Conservation Center which houses the AZA’s Crocodilian Biology and Captive Management School. In 2006, the zoo opened its Birds of Africa exhibit; two years later, the Realm of the Saltie exhibit opened.

The original 7-acre footprint hasn’t changed much since the early days, but the way it is used has. Overhead, a rider glides by on the Crocodile Crossing zip line (added in 2011) with only a small buzzing noise. It is progress, but not a “circus atmosphere,” Brueggen said. “The owner is very adamant that everything has to fit into the overall naturalistic theme.”

It’s a delicate balance between keeping people’s interest with new things and maintaining the natural integrity, but that’s the business plan — and always will be.