Gator aid: Clayton zoo provides new home for rescued alligator

CLAYTON — Dan Stonebraker received an unexpected delivery in late March, calling it “not your typical donation, by any means.”

Mr. Stonebraker, co-owner and operator with Matt Shaffner of 3 Palms Zoo and Education Center at 924 Blackbird Forest Road, was the recipient of a 5-foot long American Alligator from an anonymous donor.

No worries, Mr. Stonebraker said, it’s these kinds of things that help keep his zoo clicking 24 hours a day. He runs Delaware’s only rescue zoo for exotic, wild and domestic animals.

“Every year there’s one or two alligators surrendered, mostly anonymously,” he said. “Brandywine Zoo has had them dropped off outside of their facilities and a local pet store in Dover has had them dropped off at their facilities.

“You can’t purchase alligators in Delaware but you can go to a Repticon Show in Baltimore and buy one for about $75 or $80.”

Mr. Smee, a 5-foot long American Alligator, was anonymously donated to the 3 Palms Zoo in Clayton in late March. (Submitted photo)

The newest resident of 3 Palms Zoo, called “Fonzo” by his previous owner, is in the process of getting a makeover and a new name — Mr. Smee, Captain Hook’s right-hand man in “Peter Pan.”

Mr. Smee, estimated to be five years old, was moved into a habitat with Tick-Tock, the zoo’s other alligator, on March 24.

“He’s a little evasive still,” Mr. Stonebraker said. “I haven’t seen him out of the water myself but we’ve seen him in the water several times. His head has come up and he’ll look at us. He seems to be coming around.”

He said it’s a good thing the alligators are taking some time getting used to one another. That’s because neither of them has ever seen another alligator before and both need some time to adjust.

Dan Stonebraker is the owner and operator of 3 Palms Zoo in Clayton. He calls his job “a labor of love.” (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

They do share quite an exotic home, a luxurious natural, climatized habitat complete with a spacious pond, lush tropical plantings and even a lawn for lounging.

Spanish moss and air plants filter the air while adding oxygen. Fish, crayfish, frogs and tadpoles complete the habitats’ living ecosystem.

The alligators’ diet mostly consists of venison, fish, frogs and rats.

Mr. Stonebraker said he was happy that the alligator’s previous owners chose to surrender the reptile to the zoo, adding that many times people will just release alligators into a pond.

“The guy had it and really knew he shouldn’t,” he said. “He knew what he was doing because it was probably the best care for an alligator that I’ve ever seen.

“Usually, when you see them and they’ve been held in captivity, folks aren’t providing the adequate light, the adequate diet, temperature, exercise, so on and so forth. You see a lot of metabolic bone, real pale skin condition, bacterial infection, but he was very healthy and very well cared for.”

Mr. Stonebraker doesn’t know exactly what the future will hold for his pair of alligators, but he said he will do his best to provide them with a comfortable home.

“It’s nice to be able to provide a good home for him,” said Mr. Stonebraker. “The ultimate goal would be to create a bigger, larger habitat for them once they grow and be able to facilitate them both.

This is the alligator habitat at 3 Palms Zoo that is now home to Mr. Smee and Tick-Tock, both of “Peter Pan” lore. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

“As they escalate and the alligators continue to grow, if we can’t facilitate them then we’ll have to look for other zoos. We’ll find them a good home if we have to.”

It’s come a long way

The 3 Palms Zoo and Education Center has been operating for 13 years and will celebrate its seventh year of being open to the public in September.

The facility has grown from humble beginnings and now houses 275 animals, with hand-made habitats and trails through the woods off Blackbird Forest Road.

Some of the more popular zoo residents include Nola the goose, who likes to walk along with visitors around the grounds, and the ever-smiling Dominick the donkey.

“We started with primarily agricultural animals like dumped and abandoned chickens and ducks and geese more than anything,” Mr. Stonebraker said. “Nowadays, it’s nonstop, honestly, around the clock. Some days we work 24 hours and you never know what you’re going to have to pick up.

“The phone often rings at midnight and 2 in the morning for us to go out and rescue animals. You could say it’s a labor of love.”

A word of spring caution

Mr. Stonebraker said that now is the time when many people go out and buy ducks and geese for their children for Easter.

He wants to caution that domestic ducks and geese are not wild animals. They cannot fly or survive in the wild and that dumping them in the wild is “a sure sentence to death.”

There are also county code restrictions for anyone living in an area zoned residential.

“Any duck or goose purchased from any supply or pet store are domestic, as wild birds are illegal for sale under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” Mr. Stonebraker said.

“People will buy the birds and raise them for a couple of weeks and when they don’t want them they’ll take them to the pond and let them go, primarily over lack of education. They will not be able to survive in the wild.”

Easter EggStravaganZoo!

The 3 Palms Zoo and Educational Center will really get its season cranked up with its fifth annual Easter EggStravaganZoo! this Saturday and again on April 15 from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.

The zoo will host a special Easter egg hunt followed by a hands-on event with all of the animals, from chickens, ducks, sheep, rabbits, mini pigs, goats and more. Children can also get their pictures taken with the Easter Bunny and Mother Goose.

“Our first event of the season is this Saturday and that’s such a good time,” Mr. Stonebraker said. “We have such a nice turnout and the kids love it.

“They get to do a little bit of everything. They can see the animals and they get to Easter Egg hunt … It’s fun for everybody.”

He added for parents not to worry, they won’t hide any eggs in the alligator habitat.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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