It may be one of the more unusual interstate highway rest stops. But if you are traveling Interstate 10 through southwest Louisiana you can take a break at Jennings and pet an alligator.
The main attraction inside the Jeff Davis Parish Tourist Center is alligators, who live in a newly expanded Gator Chateau.
Some of the gators are small enough for children to hold. But occasionally, a larger alligator recovering from an injury in the wild will spend some time here.
In addition to her duties as marketing director for the Jeff Davis Parish Tourism Office, Dione Sabelhaus also feeds the alligators, including a 7-footer. This big boy is a rescue alligator who was injured in the wild and is recovering at the Gator Chateau.
Sabelhaus explains, “He’s fixing it hits seven feet and usually about that age, they start having a lot of territorial issues. He’s ready to go out in the wild. The larger alligators have a pool to swim in, and that puts them up close to visitors.
Once a week, Sabelhaus uses a long-handled claw tool to hand each animal pieces of raw chicken. Sometimes, the chicken is followed up with a second course of hot dogs. The pool is also home to a pair of large alligator snapping turtles.
The real stars are the smaller gators, the ones that are small enough for children to hold. It takes a little courage since the young gators’ mouths are not taped shut. But the reptiles seem to enjoy the attention, and it makes for a great picture to send family and friends.
The alligators are provided by the Louisiana Deparatment of Wildlife and Fisheries. “People call because they see a baby gator either in their pool or in the ditch,” Sabelhaus says. “What happens is they lost their mom along the way. They won’t survive if they don’t have their mom, so we’re their mom for the first seven years.” All of the alligators will eventually be released.
To give you an idea of how popular these alligators are, since they opened this enlarged Gator Chateau, there have been more than a thousand visitors every week. Children of all ages can pet or touch a live alligator and the experience is free. It’s part of a parish marketing plan to introduce travelers to some of the area’s more interesting inhabitants.