Louisiana Alligators: In the Wild, at the Farm, and on the Table
Finding alligators in Louisiana in February can be difficult even on a day hitting 60 degrees, the average monthly high. My first visit to this warm winter destination, some fifteen years ago, the only alligator I saw was a foot-long little guy the tour guide had brought along. This February, though, I was much luckier!
Alligators don’t hibernate in the winter, but they do slow down and burrow into the mud in the bayou. They’re fine as long as the water stays above 40 degrees, but stop feeding when the temperature drops below 70 degrees. That’s when they pack it in and wait for a sunny day.
This time we packed in various Mardi Gras celebrations, along with the best of Southern Louisiana, on our eight day February trip where I introduced some friends to all the Louisiana things I love. And what’s more Louisiana than alligators–amazing creatures that have survived since the Mesozoic era, some 200 million years or so ago.
Finding Alligators in the Wild
A swamp tour is probably the #1 thing visitors to Louisiana have on their list of things to do–and with good reason. Louisiana’s wetlands represent about 40% of all of this habitat in the U.S. and currently, about 80% of wetland losses. The state’s wetlands extend for close to 200 miles along the coastline and 80 miles inland, so there are dozens of opportunities to explore the swamps.
Since our visit began in New Orleans, I selected a swamp tour midway between it and Baton Rouge, our second stop. The advantage to visiting Manchac Swamp is that it’s a privately owned wildlife refuge, so the number of boats are limited to those owned by Cajun Pride Swamp Tours.
Our captain, Captain Allan, assured us that the bayou is one of the safest places to visit, since alligators do their best to avoid humans. And here, where the alligators know the captains and the boats, it seemed the alligators were happy to cooperate in the fun as long as we kept our distance.
The boat cruised through the bayou with Captain Allan telling us all about the local habitat we were visiting, from the invasive water hyacinth believed to have arrived around 1903 with the cotton explosion in New Orleans, to the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and cabbage at New Year’s for luck.
All told, we saw alligators in three different spots in the swamp, even though it was definitely off-season. One of them was taking a sun bath in front of this Cajun Condo! Before we left the swamp, Captain Allan let visitors hold “Allie,” a young female he’d rescued very young where it had wandered off in the swamp.
For me, the Cajun Pride Swamp tour is a perfect way to learn about the bayou and meet an alligator or two, no matter the season.
Planning your visit to the Manchac Swamp
Visiting Alligators at the Farm
You can be guaranteed to see alligators close-up when you visit a Louisiana alligator farm whether you’re looking for a winter hotspot or a summer vacation. While each farm provides its own type of visitor experience, I found the Greenwood Gator Farm in Houma one of the most interesting.
Why? Well, the tour really was about farming alligators as an industry, as opposed to just being a tourist attraction. And I always prefer the authentic perspective, especially as I have a farming background myself.
The few alligators we saw were sunning themselves behind a chain-link fence–like many farmed animals, it would be detrimental to the alligators to open the barns up to people. Our guide, Angie, told us their barns are kept hot, at 93 degrees, to keep the animals growing year-round, and dark, since alligators are nocturnal animals.
Using videos, photos, and artifacts, Angie took us through the process of raising alligators, from gathering eggs in the swamps with an air boat, to the processing. For me, this was the most interesting part.
Alligator farmers only have 24 hours to process the gator to have edible meat, so things must run efficiently. An experienced alligator skinner can do a thousand alligators in three or four days–and any mistakes, like nicks or cuts, are costly.
Greenwood Gator Farm ships most of its hides to Italy, for use in such things as purses. I was shocked to hear that a purse made of a continuous piece of hide would cost up to $10,000!
While the hides are the top revenue-generating product on an alligator, Greenwood also sells the meat, the bones (for cosmetics), and the live blood (for medical purposes).
Visitors also get a chance to hold the very rare pet yellow alligator at the farm. I found her very tame and used to people–she seemed quite content to be held, not moving at all!
Adult alligators can be olive, brown, gray, or black in color, while their undersides are cream-colored. Miss Allie, however, is pretty small for her age (6 years) and a lot yellower, so she’s very rare. There are also rare white alligators, which I saw in New Orleans, at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
Once the tour is done, visitors can check out the animal pens to see and feed the alligators, miniature horses, turtles, ducks, and even a raccoon. There’s also a small park with playground equipment.
Plan your visit to Greenwood Gator Farm
Greenwood Gator Farm is just outside the city of Houma. It’s the filming site for the History Channel’s Swamp People show. You can get information on visiting at: http://www.greenwoodgatorfarm.com/
Alligator on the Table–Eating Alligator!
From Greenwood Gator Farm we just went six miles back on Hwy 182 into Houma, stopping at Bayou Delight, a local restaurant that buys alligator meat from the farm, for lunch. After all, it’s always great to eat locally.
The menu at Bayou Delight had several alligator dishes on it, including Alligator Sauce Pecan, Fired alligator, and Fried Alligator bites as an appetizer. Since it was lunch time we tried the fried bites and found them very tasty.
Of course, everyone always wants to know what alligator actually tastes like. Well, it’s chewy, and tastes mostly like whatever spices or coatings are used in cooking. Bayou Delight’s fried alligator had a subtle blend of spices that we all enjoyed.
Earlier, while taking a random road trip, we’d tried Alligator Kickers at the Tradewinds Restaurant in Cocodrie, a few miles from where Hwy 56 ends at the waters of the Gulf. The kickers were made from ground alligator, which Captain Allan had told us was the best way to eat it. I soon figured out the reason for the second part of the name was in the seasoning blend, as the alligator balls really had some kick!
But whether you want to eat alligators or just see them, Southern Louisiana is the destination of choice!
My thanks to the Houma Area Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and Visit Baton Rouge for helping make my stay in Louisiana such a memorable experience. Also, thank you to Greenwood Gator Farm for the complimentary tour.