An old photo I recently came upon brought to mind my close encounter with a notable character in the zoo world – Gomek, a huge Salt Water Croc (Crocodylus porosus) who long resided at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida.
Fun and Games with Giant Crocs
At the time of my visit (1991), Gomek measured 17 feet long and weighed in at an amazing 1,700 pounds. I was working at the Bronx Zoo, and called ahead try and arrange a behind-the-scenes look. As always, the kind folks at St. Augustine were most accommodating. I was met there by an animal keeper who was about to take an outside contractor into the giant beast’s exhibit to do some repairs. Naturally, I was happy to tag along.
What first struck me was the seemingly suicidal entranceway into the exhibit. Upon entering, you had to walk along a 3 foot wide path which was bordered by a pond on one side (in which Gomek invariably lounged) and a wall on the other. I had no doubt that adrenalin would shoot me over that wall should Gomek charge, but still…
The outside contractor was a young man in the throes of terror, but he had a job to do and was determined to see it through. The keeper explained that Gomek was quite calm, almost “friendly” in fact, and that in any event the stick he held would fend off an attack. This seemed to calm the young man…that is until we were well within the exhibit and the keeper commented to me that it was “…amazing how folks believed that a broomstick would be of any use against a 17 foot-long-croc”! But all went well, and I had an unforgettable close up view of the word’s most famous croc.
Note: using a stick when working with crocs is standard procedure for experienced keepers. In the accompanying photo, I’m fending off the advances of an adult Marsh Crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) in just such a manner. The other photo shows the stick I mentioned above and Gomek surfacing to look us over.
Gomek’s History – Crocs, Elephants and Weight Lifting
Gomek was captured on the Fly River (yes, home to the popular Fly River Turtles, Carettochelys insculpta, upon which, I’m sure, he dined from time to time!) and wound up in the collection of Arthur Jones in the mid 1980’s. Mr. Jones was quite a character himself – best known to most folks as the inventor of Nautilus weight training equipment, he was a superb animal man, and once maintained a herd of African Elephants on his property (Deland, Florida, if memory serves me).
Life at St. Augustine
After being transferred to St. Augustine (1990), Gomek subsisted on Nutria, or Coypu. These South American rodents were brought to the USA to be bred on fur farms. Many promptly escaped, and today millions are wrecking environmental havoc throughout the Southeast. I’ve observed them as far north as southern Virginia…feral populations are also established in Africa, Europe and Asia.
Gomek died in 1997 at an estimated age of 85-90+ years old. He measured 17 feet, 8 inches long and tipped the scales at nearly 1 ton…good thing he had a calm disposition!
Of course, Gomek has his own Facebook Page.
You can also read more about this incredible animal on the St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Website.