Plucky Former Poultry Farmer Goes Wild For Gators

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Just outside of Camilla, Ga. — about four hours southwest of Atlanta — up a dirt road called Alligator Lane, is one of the largest alligator farms in the country.

"We've got about 20 chicken houses, and we've got about 100,000 alligators on the farm," says owner Mark Glass.

That's right, 100,000 alligators, and they are in big demand in Europe's high-fashion industry.

Right now it's hatching season.

"Actually there's one of them on the floor running around now," Glass says, as a black and yellow striped alligator, about 5 inches long from head to tail, scurries across the floor. Glass picks him up.

"Yeah, that's one that just hatched, that's him barking," he says. "And they will bite as soon as they hatch."

Glass started out as a chicken farmer. He bought a few alligators to help dispose of dead chickens because burning and burying the birds was getting too expensive. But Glass soon learned that taking care of alligators costs money, too; they need a lot of attention and they eat more than just dead chickens.

Glass began raising alligators commercially for their hides and meat.

At first he kept them in an outdoor pond, but that almost had near disastrous results. Once, after releasing about 750 alligators into the pond, he took a closer look at the fence.

"I finally went and picked up an alligator and carried him to the fence and set him down, he walked right through the fence, and I was like 'Oh no, these alligators aren't as big as I thought they were,' " he says. "We had to quickly get all the hardware stores in town to open up, we bought all the chicken wire that existed. We didn't lose but one or two."

But it's quiet on this alligator farm — no slapping of tails, no splashing, no Crocodile Dundee. The alligators spend their entire lives indoors in barns where everything is controlled, including food, climate and water temperature.

They spend their lives in semi-darkness, so they won't be too aggressive because when they fight, it's bad for business.

"The industry we are selling the alligator hides into — the Louis Vuittons, the Hermes, the Gucci, Prada, Chanels — they want perfect premium skins. No scars, no blemishes, no scratches," he says.

It's hard to imagine that these prehistoric-looking reptiles, swimming around in a smelly pond on a South Georgia farm, may one day grace the arms of the world's beautiful people.

"We grow them to somewhere between 3 1/2- to 6-feet long," Glass says. "The small hides are 3 1/2- to 4-foot, and they go into the watch strap market for the high-end watches; the 5 1/2- to 6-footers go into the women's handbag market."

Glass never imagined himself as an alligator farmer. But he should have had a premonition: 20 years ago, he proposed to his wife at a Florida vacation spot called Alligator Point.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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