They aren’t your typical household pets, but Susan Daigle treats the alligators at the Gator Chateau like she would any other pet.
For the last three years, the retired elementary school teacher has been feeding, nurturing and taking care of the alligators as director of this unique roadside attraction at the Louisiana Oil and Gas Park just off Interstate 10 at Exit 64.
“These are my babies,” Daigle said as she walked 3-year-old gator Bubba around the park on a dog leash. “He likes this. I try to walk him three times a week because he needs exercise to build his muscles up.”
The reaction from visitors during the weekly walks is always the same, she said. “First they ask what is that. Then they say I have to go get my camera,” she said.
Bubba is one of eight alligators housed at the Gator Chateau — three adults and five babies. They share their home with Rambo, a 125-year-old alligator snapping turtle.
“Our little gator family is growing,” Daigle said.
The newest edition is 5-year-old Thibodaux, a nearly 6-foot male alligator. He joins 8-year-old Clotile, a female alligator who has been there since she was a baby, and Ophelia, a 4-year-old female.
Other alligators include Hampton, Little Foot and Tee Deux, all 2-year-old alligators, and 3-year-old Evangeline.
The open-air enclosure opened in October 1991 to provide year-round viewing of the exhibit, which now serves as a rescue site for baby alligators.
“Most of these were abandoned or lost their mothers,” Daigle said. “If we hadn’t taken them in they’d be dead or been eaten. We give them a chance.”
The alligator exhibit was a well-liked tourist attraction well before the History Channel’s “Swamp People” made alligators and alligator trapping popular around the world, she said.
Now the curious come to the Chateau to hold the baby alligators and learn more about the reptiles.
T-shirts at the Chateau boast “Don’t choot ’em, hold ’em” — a play on the “choot ’em” slogan that has become a trademark for “Swamp People.”
“Right now there is a curiosity about alligators, and we are able to answer their questions, and they are able to see the beginning of what they see on TV,” Daigle said.
She said her goal is to educate people, especially children, about gators.
“Alligators are a big curiosity now, and I want to make sure they understand them,” she said. “I want children to know they don’t have to be afraid of them and want them to learn to respect them and know how to act around them.”
Visitors are encouraged to hold the baby alligators and take photographs with them, Daigle said. And there’s plenty of alligator souvenirs to take home.
The city of Jennings recently started including the alligators as part of family reunions and birthday parties held at the 31-acre park, which also includes a wooden oil derrick replica, tourist information center, playground, picnic area, walking path and 11-acre fishing pond.
Its location right off I-10 draws visitors who stop for tourist information, a cup of coffee and to see the alligators, Daigle said.
The Gator Chateau averages about 4,000 visitors a month, according to Dione Sabelhaus, parish tourism marketing director.
Last year, it hosted more than 160 field trips for schoolchildren and more than 100 bus and tour groups.
Billboards along the interstate have enticed visitors from all over the world — the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Russia and Japan — to stop to see the alligators.
Hours for the Gator Chateau are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday during the summer and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday in the fall. Winter hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
From May to September, visitors can watch as Daigle feeds the alligators weekly.
Admission is free.
For more information, call 821-5521 or visit www.jeffdavis.org.