North-Linn Community School District’s mascot is the lynx, but the gator might be more appropriate.
North-Linn High School’s Future Farmers of America chapter is in its fifth year of raising three American alligators, and adviser Tom Murray said those scaly creatures have earned the program quite a reputation.
“It brings people into the greenhouse,” he said. “They’re interested in seeing (their) eating habits. They’re interested in seeing alligators.”
He and his FFA students will get to once again test that hypothesis on Friday at Ag in the Park at the Central City Fairgrounds, an event where Linn County FFA chapters can showcase their four-legged friends.
Alligators were not what Murray had in mind five years ago when he assigned his students a research project in which they’d learn more about species the school could potentially house in the aquatic areas of its greenhouse. The process had worked in the past, which is how the FFA students began raising prawns.
“Initially, I was shocked. I was like, ‘Holy cow, you want to raise alligators? That’s a dangerous proposition,’” he recalled of his reaction. “(The student) kind of talked me into it with the information that he already learned ahead of time.”
After a few discussions with administrators and consulting legislation about exotic animal ownership, a few months later the district had procured three baby American alligators from Florida. And those gators were now the responsibility of Murray and the FFA, putting them in rarefied air. The alligators have even earned state-level recognition for North-Linn’s FFA in the category of specialty animal production.
“When it comes to specialty animals, it’s hard to beat for sure,” said Brendan Schott, a senior in North-Linn’s FFA chapter.
Dale Gruis, an Iowa Department of Education agriculture education consultant and state FFA adviser, said he was not aware of any other FFA chapters in the state who raise alligators.
“I think it really helps show a diversity of opportunities in agriculture,” Gruis said. “I find anything innovative like that is a really great way to get students interested. Students who are interested are more likely to learn than students who aren’t.”
For Murray, the alligators also were a way to break away from the stereotypes people hold of agricultural education.
“I think a lot of people think of agriculture as sows, plows and cows. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions. We have to cater more to kids who live in town,” he said. “The alligators are definitely very cutting-edge.”
For four-year FFA member Schott, caring for the reptiles fulfills the organization’s mission.
“That’s why we have them,” he said. “FFA is the future of agriculture, so we’re prototyping (whether) there is a market for alligator meat in the Midwest.”
As students cycle through the program, one takes main responsibility for the three alligators — Paris, Beau and Giant — while training a younger peer to take over after the older one graduates.
“Since I was a freshman, I took interest in it,” Schott said. “It was always interesting to come out here and clean the tanks ... I’ve always enjoyed that.”
The reptiles live inside an 800-gallon tank in the school’s greenhouse and the students — this year it’s Schott and sophomore Justin Voss — are in charge of keeping the water clean and feeding the alligators, who eat cat food because of its high protein content.
Much of the students’ knowledge about the alligators has come from a mix of research and experience. Murray said the students have learned everything from how the reptiles react in different climates to the details of their sexual maturation and mating habits.
“There’s a great deal of educational value in doing these types of things,” Murray said. “For the kids, it’s been a great project ... Their knowledge has grown immensely, taking care of the alligators.”
As the alligators have grown — Murray estimated their length at 6 inches when they arrived at the high school — so have the duties in caring for them. Schott and Voss estimated that it takes more than an hour for both of them to clean the tank, a process that involves removing all three reptiles and putting them in a separate tank temporarily.
“They’re getting big enough that we have to put a pallet over it,” Voss said. “We used to just use a net.”
That trio of 6-inch baby gators is nowhere to be found. Instead, they’ve been replaced by three almost fully grown alligators, the largest of which Schott estimated is 25 to 30 pounds if not more.
“They can be relatively calm when you hold them in your hands,” Schott said. “They’re by no means domesticated.”
“He’ll hiss at you all the time,” Voss said of Beau, who has a reputation as “the mean one.”
His size and demeanor are why the students don’t take him out to events, especially ones where children will be present, even though the FFA members bind the gators’ mouths shut.
“The big one’s neck is bigger than my two hands in a circle,” Schott said. “We don’t know how it would react to being touched by kids all day and poked.”
Murray and the students said they haven’t had any close calls with the reptiles, but safety is still a priority.
“I don’t want anyone in here who hasn’t been trained by the student before them,” Schott said of the alligator tank.
After five years, the students are getting ready to say goodbye to the alligators.
“Unfortunately, we have to,” Schott said. “We love them and the attention we get from other FFAs.”
Beginning this summer, the plan is to get rid of one each year so it can be “processed” — sold for its hide and meat, the taste of which Voss described as “a chewy chicken.”
“We’re ready to start over,” he said.
Murray said he hopes to buy three new baby alligators in spring 2017, as long as the student interest is still there.“It has created a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of interest in the (agriculture) program in the high school, in the middle school, in the community,” he said. “We’re always open to what the kids suggest and what they want to do.”