BUHL, Idaho (AP) -- To our left, dozens of cold, unfeeling eyes peer out of murky waters. To our right, large, toothy creatures protect their nest. At our back, dozens more alligators circle in fetid waters, looking for a free meal.
A woman huddled with young schoolchildren looks through the chain link fence with fear-filled eyes and in a wavering voice asks, ''What are you guys doing in there? You do have guns, don't you? Please tell me you're carrying guns!''
On safari in deepest, darkest Africa? Nope.
Mucking through swamps in the Everglades? Uh-uh.
Roaming the high desert in southern Idaho? You got it.
Nestled next to the Snake River near Buhl, with a country club and golf course to the east and a heron rookery to the west, commercial fish farmer Leo Ray has found the perfect place for raising catfish, tilapia, trout, sturgeon -- and alligators.
It's the quality of the water that attracted Ray to this area and has contributed greatly to the success of his business. Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, which parallels the curvy Snake River for 47 miles between Bliss and Twin Falls, is honeycombed with hot geothermal springs.
Ray, who was born and raised on a farm in Oklahoma and studied fish farming at the University of Oklahoma, visited the area in the early 1970s and observed that if the hot geothermal water could be mixed with cold surface water for an optimum temperature of 78-80 degrees, he could grow the finest fish around.
He began Fish Breeders of Idaho in 1973 when he bought a hillside site on the bank of the river. He dug artesian wells and built a complicated series of concrete raceways and ditches cascading down the hill to raise catfish. Although nobody had been successful raising catfish in this manner, the business flourished and they soon added trout, sturgeon and Asian food fish tilapia.
Success bred a problem, however. When you raise thousands of fish, some inevitably die and others have to be culled. These mortalities become a considerable headache.
How do you get rid of huge piles of dead fish?
The answer was obvious to Ray -- bring in the alligators. The big reptiles were already being farmed in Florida and he saw no reason they couldn't be raised in Idaho. What better and cheaper way to deal with a huge pile of dead fish than to feed the discards to another moneymaking crop?
What made it economical was free food and free heat. Tapping into the abundant reserves of warm, geothermal waters, Ray is able to keep his gators alive in the often cool and sometimes frigid high desert with a free, steady flow of well water running at a constant temperature of 95 degrees.
Ray not only feeds his own dead fish to the gators, but provides a free garbage disposal system for the rest of the local fish industry. With about 85 other fish farms in the area, the alligators get a permanent free buffet of high-quality fish and farms gain a cheap and easy solution to their disposal problem.
It's a great trade-off and Ray contends that with the combination of constant temperatures, sparkling artesian water and free, high-grade food, he can produce a tastier, more succulent grade of gator with superb hide quality.
While these scaly creatures are frightening in appearance, they don't seem to scare the locals.
''They're more of a curiosity to my neighbors than anything,'' Ray said. ''We get visitors driving up here every day to check out the gators. They even bring school buses full of children up here for regular field trips. Kids are fascinated with dinosaurs these days and these are just small dinosaurs.''
Smaller gators are kept in an indoor facility while the grown-ups live in three outdoors ponds surrounded by a buried, two-foot deep concrete wall topped with a sturdy cyclone fence and barbed wire.
''If any of these critters did get loose, they wouldn't survive long in the surrounding area,'' Ray said. ''They can't live long without a warm environment, which we provide. We worked long and hard with Idaho Fish and Game to come up with a set of standards to maintain these fellows.''
While Fish Breeder's mainstay has been catfish, trout and tilapia, alligator meat has steadily gained ground. Most of the demand for meat is from the Southern states and Ray maintains ''it's all I can do to keep up with the demand.''
But hopes are high to meet that demand because his gators are just coming into breeding age. Until now, he has had to get hatchlings from Florida, but some of his gators are getting old enough that he hopes they will breed and become self-sustaining by producing gator hatchlings.
And meat is not the only demand; they also provide gators to the Boise and Pocatello zoos every spring.
With the meat business doing well, they are now turning to finished hide products. Stacked in Ray's garage are hundreds of tanned and dyed gator hides, supple to the touch, ranging in colors from honey tan to burgundy and black. Future plans include a gift shop with finished alligator products including purses, belts, vests, wallets and boots.
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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