The Colorado Gator Man with A Big Heart
At the height of the fires in Southern Colorado, I was calling Churches to get assistance to victims of the fire. I called Erwin Young who serves as an Elder at the Alamosa Church of Christ in the San Louis Valley, Colorado. During our conversations on the phone it became clear that the end to the fires was not in sight, and I would need to travel to Colorado. I formed an instant friendship with the man and gathered a lot of information about him, including that he is a local celebrity owner of “Colorado Gators” Reptile Park and Fish Farm. There isn’t a restaurant, hotel, or visitors center for miles around Alamosa that you won’t find a display with fliers, advertising Colorado Gators.
As we worked together to lay out plans to help those whose homes were destroyed by the fires, Erwin mentioned several times that I needed to see the Gator Park. However, there were more pressing matters, and I promised to stop by before I left.
In the mean time, I got to learn a lot about Erwin Young. He introduced me to several people who either worked for him full time or part time. I quickly recognized a common theme. He was surrounded by people who love him dearly. But the other thing that became obvious is the stories they would tell how they had been delivered from drug abuse and sometimes prison, because of Erwin’s help and the power of Christ he had shared with them. These weren’t people who were merely going through the motions, they were people who are true believers. I realized the Gator Farm was much more than a tourist attraction, it was a way out of a life of drugs, and in some cases, the cycle of prison associated with drug use.
I learned that besides the Gator Farm, Erwin runs a house for recovering men with fourteen beds in Alamosa. Erwin told me he also had a home for women, but the city said that the zoning where that house was located, was incompatible with what it was being used for.
Erwin gave me a tour of a big warehouse he has near the railroad tracks, where he has a shop that his employees make displays or the “Gator Farm” literature to advertise for the attraction. He showed me the back rooms, where he has clothes hanging in neat rows, ready to give to needy people. He showed me stacks of beds and furniture that he keeps for those in need. Keep in mind, all of this is in addition to being an Elder in the Church and all of the responsibilities that go with that position. It didn’t take me long to deduce that I loved the man too.
I finally made time to see Colorado Gators. Erwin was busy helping other people and couldn’t go with me at first, but he told me to tell them who I was at the gate, and they would give me VIP treatment. And, that is what they did.
The whole thing started as a fish farm in the 1970s when Erwin and his family moved from Post, Texas and took advantage of the 87-degree thermal waters in the area. The water was perfect for raising Tilapia fish for human consumption. In 1987 Erwin bought 100 baby alligators with the idea of using them as living garbage disposals to eat fish that died. It turns out the thermal waters were also ideal for growing alligators. When word got around, the fish farm became the new home to unwanted pet alligators and other reptiles who were donated to the farm. Several more additions were made including the star attraction, Morris the Alligator, who starred in the movie Happy Gilmore.
As I said, I did get the VIP treatment. Jay Young, Erwin’s son let me hold an alligator and I was given a certificate for bravery. Jay even had my certificate embossed by the gator I held to show his teeth were really sharp. I saw lots of fish and gators and I got to see a huge fig tree that Erwin’s Great Grandfather had brought to Texas from Tennessee on a covered wagon. When Erwin moved his family to Colorado they brought cuttings of the tree to Colorado where it now thrives, and they give cuttings for new trees.
For me, the highlight of the tour was to see Morris. Jay would have shown him to me, but he was busy wrestling a huge alligator for a TV crew. However, Erwin arrived and wanted to make sure that I got a good view of Morris. The gate was locked and rather than wait to get a key, Erwin climbed a four foot gate (at 78 years old) and splashed the water with a stick until Morris came out of the water.
I have to say, the Gator Farm was pretty cool, but the best thing I saw last week was the heart of a 78-year-old Christian brother, who’s life is defined by helping others.