Hurricane Matthew: Zoo workers dodge alligators for clean up

Jim Darlington and Amie Mercado rake up debris in an alligator pit with the enormous reptiles just a couple of feet away. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)
Jim Darlington and Amie Mercado rake up debris in an alligator pit with the enormous reptiles just a couple of feet away. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)
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Residents across large parts of Florida are continuing the clean-up after Hurricane Matthew - and some are doing it surrounded by alligators.

Jim Darlington and Amie Mercado have been raking up debris in an alligator pit with the enormous reptiles just feet away, including one which opened its mouth wide when they got close.

The work at St Augustine Alligator Farm is necessary as trees and other debris fell into alligator lagoons and crocodile pools as the storm hit.

But despite fears about what could happen, the zoo - one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions and the only place in the world that displays every species of crocodilian - fared well during the storm.

Mr Darlington said: “We were all hunkered down listening to the news, and of course everybody is on social media, and sure enough a rumour started that there are alligators out - hundreds of alligators were out.”

He said the 123-year-old zoo was inspected by wildlife officials immediately after the storm passed and before employees were allowed back in. “The walls were still standing. There weren’t alligators running around,” he added.

To prepare for the storm, cobras and other venomous snakes were put in drawstring bags and placed in secure containers, and then those containers were placed in other containers.

The giant storks were rounded up and placed in bathrooms, while parrots and other birds were caged and alligator hatchlings were crated and placed in a secure building.

“We had to get very creative with where we put animals to make sure they were in the best housing condition for 48 hours that we could possibly give them,” said Gen Anderson, the zoo’s bird and mammal curator.

“Each stork was in a separate bathroom, the floors are really easy to clean and they had a water source. They seemed comfortable,” he added.

The crocodiles and alligators were not moved - but the water levels in lagoons and pools were lowered by half to make sure flooding did not get too high. Mr Darlington said the surge ended up a bit higher than he expected, but no animals escaped.

“They just stay hunkered down,” he said. “The animals just stay in the pools. In bad weather, they’re not out running around freaking out like a bunch of ostriches or something, they just want to stay in the water.”

The biggest hit to the zoo was its zip line, which visitors take to zoom over the alligators and crocodiles, dipping down to within about 30ft of the creatures. Several trees where the lines run came down in the storm.

While the zoo hopes to open on Tuesday, the zip line will take longer to repair.