How to get my job: Reptile Caretaker
It takes a certain type of person to step into an alligator pen or to play with a giant snake, but Jay Young of Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca does just that, every single day. We caught up with him to see if our fantasies of living in reptile utopia -- riding giant tortoises and wrestling 'gators -- were true, or if we've just seen too many Disney movies. (For an Animal Planet video of Young and company in action, scroll to the end of the interview.)
Westword: Tell us a little about your history with reptile handling.
Jay Young: My history with reptile handling started when I was very young. I loved catching garter snakes and salamanders, and my mom had a pet caiman, a South American crocodilian. I was five-years-old when I tried to pet it and got bit. My fascination has only grown since then. We got the first alligators on the farm in 1987 and I left for college at CSU in 1992. I moved back in 1996 to help out with the farm when my dad ruptured a disc in his spine, and I didn't intend to stay, but remembered how much I love reptiles. I started taking in abandoned and unwanted reptiles such as the big pythons, tortoises, boas, iguanas, monitor lizards, and dozens of other species to display for the education of the general public.
How would you recommend someone get started in your field?
If someone wants to get started in this field, it's best to volunteer at your local zoo or reptile center. Even helping out a pet store that specializes in reptiles would give you a great amount of knowledge and experience.
Can you describe an average day?
We spend an average day feeding animals, cleaning habitats, and teaching the visitors about reptiles. I have a lot of other responsibilities as the overall manager including oversight of the fish farm and organic greenhouses, and PR.
What's the best part about your job?
The best part of my job is either feeding the animals (still fun to watch them eat), or education (nothing beats the excitement of a child experiencing and learning something new).
What's the worst part?
The worst part of my job is by far when one of my big gators dies. I've known them for 24 years and it breaks my heart when they pass. Same with some of my older rescues.
How about the biggest misconception?
The biggest misconception has got to be that alligators are dumb animals. It's true they have a tiny brain, but they are very smart. For example they know when I come into the pen with a rope, someone is getting caught, so they all run and hide. But if I have a video camera, they know I won't be catching them, so I can get much closer to them. People also think gators and snakes are slimey, which they aren't, and the only good snake is a dead snake, but snakes are vital to our ecology, eating rodents. For two hundred years people have been killing every snake they see in Colorado, and now rodent populations are out of control.