Helping a once-endangered species thrive

John Price – Owner, Insta- Gator Alligator Ranch and Hatchery, Covington, LA

Feature | 09 November 2021
Before becoming an alligator rancher, John Price had worked in the Louisiana oil and gas industry just as his father had done. Given the downturn in the oil industry, John shifted to an alligator ranching program and has been in this industry for over 30 years.ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“Maintaining alligators is a pretty simple thing. The best thing you can do is leave them alone,” explains John Price, the owner and founder of Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery in Covington, Louisiana.

“They’re not interested in being around people and are actually very comfortable when they are not. When you sneak up or walk to the barn we have here, they know your every move, but if you happen to drive up next to them, or mow the grass, they don’t seem to care at all,” he says.

Originally from Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, Price has been working as an alligator rancher for over 30 years. Before then, he had been working in the oil and gas industry.

“I was in the oil and gas industry and my father was in the industry too,” he shares. “I was a land man and bought mineral leases for small oil companies that wanted to drill wells typically on land in south Louisiana- I didn’t do anything out of the Gulf of Mexico.”

“I dealt with landowners on land for many years up until the mid 80s, when that industry decided to die. I spent a few miserable days around the phone waiting for it to ring, and then I decided I needed to think about doing other things.”

Having been an avid wild alligator hunter, and enjoying the “sport fun of it,” John recalls how he would take a vacation once a year and spend about nine days harvesting wild alligators. It was during that time that he had learned about the alligator ranching program in Louisiana. “I started researching and looking into it and it sounded exciting and like a great opportunity so I decided to go for it in 1989,” he says.
About 10% of the Insta-Gator alligator herd are released back into the wild marshes in accordance with the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries law. Due to the ranching program, the alligators are no longer an endangered species increasing from 500,000 to over 3 million. ILO Photos/ John Isaac

Louisiana is home to the largest population of alligators and they can be found in swamps, bayous, rivers and other bodies of water, but are mostly found in the state’s coastal marshes.

While the state has a large number of alligators currently, the alligator population was “declining dramatically, in the early 60s,” according to John as the reptiles were “being consumed for their meat and their leather,” and there were no regulations before 1963.

“The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries started to study the alligator and began to realize that not only was man taking the larger alligators out of the marsh, but in addition nature was taking the younger baby alligators out of the marsh, and only six to eight out of a hundred babies laid in the marsh were surviving. After much research they concluded that we could save the babies, save the eggs, raise them to a size where they had fewer or no predators, and then release them into the wild.”

Participating in the ranching program and being able to help increase the alligator population is something John is very honored and proud to be a part of. “In Louisiana, ranchers have released over a million alligators back to the marshes and that has increased the population in the wild significantly,” he highlights.

“The population has increased from 500,000 to roughly over 3 million alligators, and I believe that to be the fastest growing population that man has ever attempted to increase in numbers,” he stresses.

In describing what a day at work is like for him and his team, John says, “We get up at about sunrise, wash the alligators, then pick up the alligators’ food from the previous day and measure it to determine exactly what they are eating. After that we hose out the pen, drain the water out of it, and refill it with fresh water and then begin feeding the alligators.”

A typical day at work for John and his team involves washing the alligators, taking note of how much food they ate based on what is left behind, cleaning out the alligator pen, and then refilling if with fresh water. They host many educational tours for students and tourists alike and many get to see and partake in the hatching process. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“While that’s what a typical day looks like, we have certain times of the year when we go out into the marsh to harvest the alligator eggs and that can take several very long days. We can have 16-to-20-hour days!” Price exclaims. “Sometimes we leave as early as 3:30 am in the morning and by the time we get back and finish packing the eggs away it’s midnight.”

As part of the alligator ranching program in Louisiana, Price and his team pick up alligator eggs from the marshes and also return some of them back in to the wild. “We go out into the marsh, and we release 10% of our herd in the form of a four-foot alligator average,” he explains. “By Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries law alligators released back into the wild need to be a minimum of three feet and a maximum of five feet in size.”

“Every one of the alligators released back into the wild has been tagged by the Wildlife and Fisheries, and a notch cut in their tails. Notching lets you know what year the alligator was released and how old they are. I believe that the American alligator is the only species on Earth, where you can go out in the wild and know their ages,” he underscores.

“I guess I am kind of a city farmer,” he says shrugging his shoulder and smiling. “I tend to be more analytical about how things should be done, and I am constantly striving for perfection. I am a perfectionist, and I understand that I almost never achieve it, but you always have to try,” Price underscores with a big grin.

About the importance of the work he is doing, John says, “The most important thing to know is that animals are not going to be saved by leaving them alone, and I don't believe that there are any success stories out there by man getting out of the way.”

In addition to preserving the species, John highlights, the hundreds of millions of dollars brought into the state’s economy from tourism, education, jobs, as well as the sale of alligator leather and meat.

As a father, John says he would love to see his sons who already help out, take over the business but he wants them to be able to do what they want. He says he is definitely open to diversifying the business which at the moment focuses on tourism, education, and school field trips.

“Work to me has got be what you enjoy,” Price emphasizes. “And I’ve been lucky to enjoy what I do.” Just then, a group of excited students and their teacher arrive for a tour of the ranch. When told that maintaining alligators is simple, by their guide, they smile and laugh in disbelief, and looking over at them John smiles too.