Chester, one of Gatorland’s largest alligators and one with a reputation for grumpiness and an appetite for dogs, has died.
He was also the attraction’s first rescue gator, Mark McHugh, Gatorland president and CEO, said in a video posted online.
Chester, thought to be born in the early 1960s, lived his early life in streams and canals near Tampa.
“About 20 years ago, all of the human development, starting building houses and shopping centers around Chester’s neck of the woods … well, that’s where the trouble started,” McHugh said in the video. He thinks people started feeding Chester.
“Although they were well-intentioned, they were actually conditioning Chester to think that people are food and everything around people is also food. That’s where he starts to lose his natural fear of humans,” McHugh said.
He also developed a taste for people’s pets, including dogs as big as labradors and boxers.
In 2002, Gatorland asked for state permission to trap and keep Chester despite current regulations that prevented zoos and animals parks from taking animals in from the wild, McHugh said.
“That law was created back in the 1950s when alligators were endangered, and I guess they thought that we’d be running all over the state grabbing alligators and throwing them in our pond,” he said. “That just wasn’t the case.”
There are millions of gators living in Florida by the time of Chester’s capture, when “nuisance” gators were taken and euthanized.
Instead, Chester moved to Orlando.
“That made Chester the very first rescue alligator here at Gatorland, setting the stage and making him the ambassador for saving hundreds of alligators lives from all around the state from certain euthanasia,” McHugh said.
In a June 2020 Orlando Sentinel story about Gatorland’s gators and animal handlers, Donny Alderelli said Chester got a bad rap for acting naturally.
“Chester was just being a gator, having to grab these dogs because some other person broke the rules and wound up feeding him,” he said. “He just was doing what he thought was the right thing to do.” (It’s illegal to feed alligators in the wild, McHugh noted.)
At first, Chester was in the water with many other alligators, a competitive situation that could have led to injury among the animals. Eventually, he was moved to his own “bachelor pad,” where he gained popularity with Gatorland guests and was part of the backstage tour. A sign at his place indicated Chester weighed 1,000 pounds and was 13.5 feet long. The attraction named a foot-long hot dog — with chili, cheese, mac and cheese and jalapeños — after him.
“Chester just liked being by himself, lying in his pond, sitting up on the grass just letting food fall out of the sky all around his head. He thought that’s how a big gator should live,” McHugh said in the 10-minute video recorded at the attraction, which opened in 1949.
“You know what you’re going to get with Chester. You walk in there every time is the same thing. He doesn’t really sugarcoat anything. He doesn’t lie about things,” Alderelli said in 2020. “You go in there, and he’s chomping, he’s tail thrashing and he’s jumping out of the water. And I love it because it’s consistent.”
But a few months ago, the Gatorland team noticed that Chester had lost his appetite. They suspected a blockage in his digestive system, and experts and veterinarians were called in to the South Orange Blossom Trail location. A treatment program that McHugh called unprecedented was implemented. It involved using a ladder to move Chester out of the water then flushing his system three times a week.
“So, back before Christmas, Chester climbed out onto his favorite sunny spot. We were sure excited to see him up there. So we left him up there that afternoon just to soak up the sunshine,” McHugh said. “When we came back that evening, Chester had passed peacefully.”
Gatorland’s new video includes clips of Chester interacting with employees and visitors, chowing down on chicken and his trademark snapping and hissing. Hundreds of commenters left condolences on the Gatorland Orlando Facebook account, calling him a superstar and posting photos with him, including one with a boy named after Chester.
“Chester sure changed this Michigander’s view on gators. The first time I saw him I knew he was special (as a boy),” wrote Dan Kerr. “Thankful to have brought my children back to see him last year.”
“One of the best alligators we had,” Brandon Fisher, Gatorland’s director of media relations, posted.