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Gatorland a simple attraction with enormous fascination
Feed hot dogs to the gators, drape a python around your neck

For the Journal-Constitution Travel Section
Published on: 04/11/06

Orlando — Alligators as big as canoes were lunging and churning in the water beneath our feet. Jet-black vultures watched from a fence.

From left, Jesus H., 7, and his brothers Louis, 3, and Alex, 6, hold a young alligator. The boys marveled that the alligator was soft to the touch.
Andrew Alan, 5, of Roswell, says Gatorland is his favorite place in Orlando. Inside the marshy compound, real alligators snap up hot dogs thrown by visitors.
Cathy Hurlbert
A young alligator shares a Gatorland habitat with a peninsula cooter. As the alligator grows, the two will be separated so that the turtle does not become a meal.

Five-year-old Andrew Alan kept the reptiles occupied with cold hot dogs thrown over the low-hanging bridge. It was all his idea, this romp through a beautiful swamp at Gatorland off South Orange Blossom Trail.

A repeat visitor to the well-tended 110-acre wildlife preserve, Andrew wanted this low-tech collection of alligators, crocodiles, birds, snakes and turtles to be our first stop on a trip to Florida. The beach could wait. Sea World could wait. The famous mouse didn't come up. The child wanted the alligator park, established in 1949, with its giant gator mouth for an entrance.

Judging from the crowd one recent morning, many others were feeling a similar urge to toss a few dogs and marvel at the amazing jaws that dominate the big, wide heads of the fascinating American alligators.


More laid back than theme parks

"The kids were all theme-parked-out, so we came here for something a little more low-key and relaxing," said Robert Reyes of Orlando, nodding toward his three grandchildren visiting from Pennsylvania.

"They're used to playing in the creeks at home without giving it much thought," said their father, Bill Schaffer. "But Florida is a different world. Here you have to think about alligators and snakes. It's fascinating to come here and think about what's really out there."

Nearby, three small brothers with big brown eyes posed for a professional photograph with a young alligator placed across their laps, its jaws taped shut for the photo. A python can be draped around your neck for no extra charge. The reptiles' watchful handlers are never more than a few inches away, making it easier to be brave.


Lure the birds with nectar

And there's more. For $5 you can buy three cups of nectar and walk into a sunny aviary where colorful birds perch on your hand or find hilarious ways to have fun, such as hanging upside down from your camera or flying into your purse. There also is a petting zoo, a playground, a train, crocodile exhibits and a show with snakes.

But most of the appreciative gasps are reserved for the mammoth alligators, kept at a safe distance by fences, bridges and an observation tower in the middle of a beautiful breeding marsh. Sometimes a bird will steal the show, intercepting a hot dog chunk in mid-air with a daring swoop.

A watchful eye along the boardwalk might catch a snowy egret feeding her young or a heron inching toward a submerged alligator — ironically considered protection from smaller predators. Fun facts and safety tips about reptiles are posted throughout.

Nothing artificial about these animals

It is a refreshing antidote to artificial amusements. When the alligators are full they stop biting and simply pretend their human guests are not there. The same goes for the birds.

And if that is a let-down for a moment, it also puts things into perspective. There are no levers or pulleys to activate when the main attraction loses interest. You can watch them acting naturally and stand in awe of Mother Nature, or you can move on down the road.

Getting there

From Atlanta, take I-75 South into Florida, merging onto the Florida Turnpike south at exit 328. Take exit 255 toward SR-528 west. Take an immediate left onto Consulate Drive. Turn right onto South Orange Blossom Trail/US-441 South. Gatorland will be about five miles on your left just after the Hunter's Creek subdivision.

About Gatorland

Gatorland, 14501 South Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, FL 32837. Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; show times vary.Cost: $19.95 plus tax for ages 13 and up; $12.95 plus tax for ages 3-12; younger kids are free. Parking is free. Discount coupons can be purchased online. 1-800-393-5297 or 407-855-5496;

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Biker draws strength from others' kindness

When Lou Alvarado hit a difficult bend in the road, he saw his own generosity over the years reflected in the gifts and actions of his many friends.

For the Journal-Constitution City Life Section
Published on: 08/07/08

To those who know him, Chamblee resident Lou Alvarado is a big-hearted man who loves his Harley Davidson motorcycles and is active with community fund-raisers.

For much of his life he has combined the two, such as the time last summer when he and his partner Sandra Petrakis rode a single Harley 6,000 miles from northern Alaska to Key West, Fla., with other motorcycle enthusiasts. The "Iron Torch" ride raised awareness and money for the Special Olympics.

Although Alvarado and Petrakis faced hundreds of miles of gravel road in Alaska, where rocks the size of cantaloupes shifted dauntingly under their fast-moving bike, nothing has compared to the challenge of trading the seat of his beloved 100th anniversary Harley for an 18-pound titanium wheelchair.

Alvarado, 50, who runs Handy Husband, a small home-projects and home-repair business, was working on a customer's roof in late April when he fell 18 feet from a ladder.

He knew right away that he was in serious trouble. A crushed vertebra left him paralyzed from the waist down.

"I'm hopeful that I'll be back on my motorcycle," Alvarado said. "But I've never, ever gone down the road of 'Why me?' From the moment I fell, the blessings have been coming in. It's overwhelming at times. We have miracles and surprises every day."

The injury would not be his only challenge. Alvarado has no medical insurance.

Petrakis, a clinical social worker, reached out immediately to the many friends and professional associates who have witnessed Alvarado's readiness to help others. They helped get him one of the few scholarship beds at the renowned Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta. He spent two months in rehabilitation, learning everything from skin care to negotiating sidewalks.

Those who helped say they were only giving back.

Alvarado and Petrakis have logged about 100,000 miles riding "two up" on a single bike for various cross-country fund-raisers, according to Petrakis' estimate. Alvarado is a Navy veteran; a member of Stone Mountain H.O.G., the Harley Owners Group; and a Rotarian.

He also is the incoming Atlanta president of the National Association of Remodeling Industry. Friends from more than 30 NARI companies nearly fought for the chance to remake Alvarado's surroundings.

"We really just asked for two things, a bigger bathroom and a ramp to the front door," Alvarado said. What they got was a complete renovation of their house off Chamblee Dunwoody Road.

He jokes that the wheelchair ramp appears solid enough to accommodate a tank and the enlarged windows "don't have anything to do with me being in a wheelchair, but they certainly are wonderful!"

Dale Contant, owner of Atlanta Design and Build, said NARI members and associates donated all of the materials and about 1,000 hours of work. Their work was inspired, he said, "by the blessings that Lou has dished out to many people and associations over the years."

Alvarado's business continued with the help of a business partner, but he has already gone back to school at DeKalb Tech, where he is furthering his skills in motorcycle maintenance.

He and Petrakis said they will continue fund-raising for groups such at the Atlanta chapter of the American Diabetes Association and the Muscular Dystrophy Association and for breast cancer research.

Meanwhile, the teamwork that he and Petrakis mastered on the Harley continues in their everyday life as they discover a new sense of normal.

"Looking back," Petrakis said, "it's like we have been training for this all along."

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animals:  Baby Zebra heals at Noah's Ark

For the Journal-Constitution News for Kids Section
Published on: 05/13/08

A tough baby zebra named Evidence is settling in at Noah's Ark Animal Rehabilitation Center in Locust Grove, where it is healing from some serious injuries.

It's at the same animal haven that Hershey the bear now calls home. News for Kids reported earlier this year on the naming contest for Hershey, the black bear that was brought to Noah's Ark from Detroit. Police discovered that someone was illegally raising the cub as a pet.

Hershey now shares a habitat with a young cougar named Little Nick and a year-old female lion named Dandelion. He and Dandelion like to tumble and play together. But the cougar still hisses and will need more time to get comfortable around the growing, gangly bear, said Noah's Ark spokeswoman Diane Smith.

"Hershey is now looking like a teenager —- much taller and with longer legs," Smith said. But he still has his baby qualities. He still likes to suck on the hand of his favorite humans and makes a purring sound to show he's happy. The plan is for Hershey and his feline friends to be moved to a public habitat so that visitors can watch them grow up together, she said.

In a nearby habitat, baby Evidence is guzzling a diet of special foods that will help him grow strong. The zebra suffered many deep wounds last month when he fell out of a truck onto the highway. His wounds were so serious that he had to have surgery at the veterinary hospital at Auburn University in Alabama. It's all been hard on the little zebra and he still needs lots of medicine. But recently, a little cat named Mary started visiting him in his pen and has helped cheer him up.

Veterinarians say he was probably hit by a vehicle after falling from the truck. Police are still investigating who was transporting him. It's not legal to have exotic animals in Georgia unless you have special training and a license like the staff at Noah's Ark.

Not many animals could survive the types of injuries that Evidence had, Smith said. But zebras are super tough because their species is used to living around lots of predators in the wild. Noah's Ark hopes to build him a habitat near the ostriches so that visitors can see him, too. But that will have to wait until he has completely recovered.

Feeding exotic animals can be challenging and expensive. Your local pet stores don't carry big bags of Zebra Chow! So Noah's Ark stays busy feeding the little guy a special formula that costs $75 a bucket, plus daily rations of coastal Bermuda hay and a tasty mix called sweet feed.

Zzzs with the zebra —- and the lions, tigers and bears, oh my!

In the next few months, Noah's Ark will have sleepovers that are open to the public. The cost for this special fund-raiser is $100 per person and will include a "Flashlight Safari" tour of the sanctuary's more than 1,000 animals. There also will be hayrides, a bonfire and marshmallow roast, camping, and early morning animal feedings. The overnight events are from 6 p.m. on Friday to 11 a.m. on Saturday. The two remaining dates are June 20-21 and July 18-19. For more information and reservations, call Noah's Ark at 770-957-0888. You can also check out the Web site (under News and Events) at

And as if that's not enough . . .

The Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta also is offering sleepovers and close encounters of the marine animal kind. The fun begins after the doors have been closed to the public with behind-the-scenes tours, a big scavenger hunt and lots of special activities. The price is $75 per person for Aquarium Annual Pass members and $100 per person for nonmembers. The remaining dates are May 24, June 7, July 5, Aug. 9, Sept. 27 and Nov. 29. You can find out more about these sleepovers by calling 404-581-4000 or going to


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Cathy Hulbert: Franklin Wanted Turkey As Our National Symbol

... as published by History News Network HNN

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (11-21-05)


Benjamin Franklin was known as a man of vision, but what he saw in the wild turkey was more than others could see.

Franklin thought so highly of the turkey that he preferred it over the bald eagle when people were trying to come up with a symbol for America. The eagle, which he called a "scavenger," was not a good choice, he said.
Here's the story:

After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, three men were appointed to come up with a national symbol. They were Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

At first, none of them wanted a bird. Instead, they talked about ideas from the Bible and from myths. Congress didn't like their ideas, historians say. Then a lawyer from Philadelphia made a design that included an eagle.

But it took until 1782 for the final decision to be made. That's when the bald eagle became part of the official American seal.

Franklin said the wild turkey was "a little vain and silly" but at least was "more respectable" than the bald eagle. But he probably was joking when he called it a "bird of courage" that would attack a British soldier if it invaded his farm "with a red coat on."

Franklin wrote in a letter to his daughter that the bald eagle "does not make his living honestly. You may have seen him perched in some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of a fishing hawk, and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the eagle pursues him and takes it from him."

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'Hoot' takes wing with the whole family

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Movie Review

From the moment the wide-eyed, burrowing owls of "Hoot" appear on the screen, the birds quietly steal the show. This fun family film, based on Carl Hiaasen's Newbery award-winning book of the same name, has a strong ecological message served with a big helping of giggle-inducing sight gags.

Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) is a 14-year-old Montana kid trying to adjust to life in a coastal Florida town. His first challenge is an oversized bully who smears his face against a school bus window.

New Line Cinema


The verdict: Little birds rule and the bad guys drool in this worthwhile family comedy with a strong ecological message.

Director: Wil Shriner
Starring: Luke Wilson, Logan Lerman, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, Cody Linley, Jimmy Buffett, Kiersten Warren, Neil Flynn
Run time: 98 minutes
Release date: May 5, 2006
Rating: PG for mild bullying and brief language.
See showtimes

On the web
Official movie site
View the trailer
   Trailers require Quicktime

Rate 'Hoot'
  Go see it
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  Don't bother


His second challenge is figuring out the mysteries of a kid called Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley), who runs like the wind and hides like an outlaw. Fleeing the bully, Roy lands in the path of a supertough soccer girl nicknamed "Beatrice the Bear" (Brie Larson). She initially rejects Roy's persistent curiosity about Mullet Fingers, but quickly brings him in on their secret: An owl habitat is threatened by a planned pancake restaurant. And it's their job to save the birds' home.

Of course, the developers won't go down easily, and the teens spend lots of time dodging adults and trying to trick them before Roy argues for another approach. With the owls looking on from their little underground bunkers, the lines are drawn in a battle of wills and wits. (Rattlesnakes and rat traps are among the weapons of choice.)

As the bumbling but good-hearted Officer Delinko, Luke Wilson ("My Dog Skip") is a nice fit as the authority figure with little authority over this youthful style of civil disobedience. But he's wiser than people think — and that's a good thing for the owls and the kids.

"Hoot" takes wing because it makes the audience care about what happens to our feathered friends. Images of the birds and their chicks will hold the attention of the restless preschool kid who came to see owls but can't quite follow the story line. For kids kindergarten-age and up, the message of the feature is never lost: Without friends like Roy and his buddies, the endangered owls are as powerless as they are mesmerizing.

Music by producer Jimmy Buffett enhances the film's piney-woods charm, keeping the mood generally light despite a serious theme. (Buffett has a small role as Mr. Ryan, a marine biology teacher who is pretty quick to catch on that something big is up.)

But big questions still loom, questions that might prompt some family discussion on the way home: When is it right to cross the legal line for something you believe in? What should kids do when adults won't listen?

When the inevitable bulldozer is cranked up and little stands between its jagged jaws and the small creatures, the scene is completely predictable but surprisingly tense. Director Wil Shriner captures the vulnerability of the birds, and it's no stretch to imagine what happens when there's no one there to intervene.

In a twist of adult-to-kid role reversal, Roy begs a crowd gathered at the construction site for a little peace and quiet.

"All we do is make noise! No wonder we don't see them!" he pleads to those who haven't seen the rare owls in their underground home and aren't sure they exist. In this movie, you're not asked to clap your hands if you believe. You are asked to keep your hands still and your eyes open.

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New archaeological look at early Georgia evangelists

Scientists are revising ideas about relations between Native Americans and Spanish Catholics at St. Catherine’s Island

For the Journal-Constitution Faith and Values Section
Published on: 01/21/06

Sometimes we get our history and cultural lessons from books. And
sometimes we get them from the shovels of archaeologists.

When the remnants of a once-lost Spanish mission were excavated on St.
Catherine’s Island off the Georgia coast from 1983 to 1986, even the
archaeologists excavating the site were amazed by the abundance of what
they found and its potential to change common beliefs about American
history, said Dennis Blanton of Fernbank Museum of Natural History, an
archaeologist who assisted with the long excavation.

Expecting signs of material poverty at the unearthed Mission Santa
Catalina de Guale a form of poverty willingly embraced by Franciscan
friars excavators found colonial dishes, jewelry, pottery, games, tools
and thousands of beads. They also found ornate religious objects, some
with clear ties to the Vatican, Blanton said.

Instead of clues to religious rigidity among 16th- and 17th-century
Catholic evangelists, they found evidence that the Native Americans, known
as Guale (pronounced Wally) by the Spanish, were able to hold on to some
of their most cherished traditions even after converting. Many of the
nearly 400 converts buried under the mission church had personal items
buried with them. It is a ritual that reflected a Native American cosmology
not a Catholic one.

"The Catholics believed that you can't take it with you, but the Indians
believed otherwise," Blanton said. "These artifacts talk to us about a

In one grave found among the ruins, a large quartz disc used in the
indigenous game called "chunky stone" was paired with a colonial blue and
white plate. In another, a similarly styled pitcher was paired with glass
and shell beads and a conch shell dipper, probably used in the Native
American Black Drink Ceremony of purification, he said.

Spanish explorers first arrived in the New World in 1513, establishing
outposts and missions throughout what is now the southeastern United
States. Mission Santa Catalina de Guale, believed to be the oldest church
in Georgia, existed from the 1570s to 1680 and served as the northernmost
Spanish colonial outpost on the Eastern seaboard.

As the recently appointed curator of Native American archaeology for
Fernbank, Blanton said he is eager to create a permanent exhibit that will
give Georgians a better understanding of their regional history, a story
that does not begin with the arrival of the English.

One historian thinks the paradigm shift could not come at a better time.

"So far, the collective consciousness of Georgians has not extended to
include the influence of the Spanish, but this discovery most definitely
will change that," said Edward Cashin, professor emeritus of history at
Augusta State University and director of the Center for the Study of
Georgia History. "You know, some people are making an issue of the influx
of Hispanics into this area, but they could well respond by saying, 'We
were here first.' "


The Franciscans treated these Indians very humanely, Cashin said, contrary
to what many people believe. “They developed a genuine bond with them," he said. "Many of the Indians who had been converted to Christianity by the
Spanish were later rounded up by the English and shipped off to be slaves
in Barbados and the Carolinas — a large number of them. In writing
history, we tend to focus on the misdeeds of the other side, but not on
our own."

Blanton believes archaeology can challenge commonly held beliefs about
times long ago and histories, which he says are generally written by the

"Predictably, the English cast the Spanish in such a way that they were
dismissed as bad guys, not worth knowing about," he said. But the
artifacts reveal "a true day in the life of Catholic missionaries and how
they related to the Indians they sought to convert."

It is now known that Catholic mission life was far more prolific on the
eastern coast of what is now the United States than it was in the west, a
fact concealed, in part, by the climate of the south. Unlike the dry heat
of the west, the moist air and rain dissolved — rather than baked — the
biodegradable remains of what was once a long chain of Spanish mission
sites. On St. Catherine’s, shifting sands and natural vegetation shrouded
remaining clues as to what lay beneath the ground.

Blanton and others still studying the vast implications of the find say
the unfolding story is moving: culturally isolated Franciscans, known as
Barefoot Brothers, relying on personal enterprise and faith to convert
people who had their own long-held spiritual beliefs.

It is also a story of resilience and self-determination on the part of the
Native American people of the region, they say.

The strategic and cultural considerations of how to deal with the first
Europeans split the tribes in the region "right down the middle,"
according to Philip Jenkins, author of "Dream Catchers: How Mainstream
America Discovered Native Spirituality."

The Indians could fight back and win, and the Spanish knew it, said
Jenkins, professor of history and religious study at Pennsylvania
University. "So the friars came in knowing this and practicing a kind of
Christianity that allowed for a lot of adaptation," he said. "The Indians
also were influencing the Spanish and teaching them a great deal about how
to relate."

Prior to the archaeological find on the 14,640-acre barrier island, some
regional history was known. In September 1597 a baptized Indian named
Juanillo, the nephew of a chief, became enraged that his plan to have more
than one wife was frowned upon by one of the friars at a nearby mission.
While the friar had no authority over Juanillo's goal to be a chief, his
disapproval on this matter appears to have carried some weight, triggering
an uprising by a faction of Guale upset by the growing cultural influence
of the Spanish.

Four friars and one lay brother were killed and four coastal missions
destroyed. Juanillo eventually was captured by the Spanish and killed. The
painstaking rebuilding of the St. Catherine’s mission wasn't begun until
1605 after some hesitation by the Spanish government. It is said the
Franciscans pushed passionately for the rebuilding, arguing that the men
should not have died in vain. But the mission again was burned, this time
by the English, in 1680.

In February 1984, the Bishop of Savannah, Raymond W. Lessard, officially
began the Cause of Beatification process, asking that the five be
officially recognized as martyrs by the Catholic Church. The petition
states that they died defending tenets of their faith, specifically those
around the sacrament of marriage. Those priests later caught in the
crossfire of battles between European nations likely would not qualify,
according to the church guidelines.

The revolt does not tell the whole story of Catholic-Guale relations,
historians say. Many of the converted Guale fought valiantly, risking
their own lives to protect the friars and the mission sites, according to
the Rev. Conrad Harkins, a historian based at the Franciscan University of
Steubenville in Ohio.

"Many of those killed in the battle were Guale Indians. One chief offered
to take the friars to a safe place on what is now known as Cumberland
Island. But the friars refused to go.

"The friars who came to this country knew that they would probably die for
their beliefs," he said. "Franciscans had a chapter in their rule that
invited them to go into martyrdom. But none could be sent against their
will. They had to volunteer." Church records state that when the Vatican
advertised opportunities in the New World, there was a "stampede" of
interest among Catholic priests.

The first friars arrived with Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 and
were left alone at these missions without forts or protection. "They were
demonstrating that the proclamations of the Gospel were worth dying for,"
Harkins said.

The excavation of the St. Catherine’s site has yielded nearly 1 million
pieces — some of them ornate religious objects and others mere pieces of
the mission walls. Most have been organized by Blanton and now sit in 889
boxes on Fernbank's lower floor. Until a permanent exhibit is created, a
smaller one showing some of the pieces is a likely next step, Blanton

The priceless collection was donated to the museum in 2004 by the Edward
John Noble Foundation, named after the New York businessman who founded
the Life Savers Candy Co. in 1913 and was chairman of the American
Broadcasting Co. in the 1940s. In 1943 Noble bought St. Catherine’s Island,
which is now owned by the nonprofit St. Catherine’s Island Foundation. The
Noble Foundation, the parent foundation, funded the archaeological
explorations there.

The volume and sophistication of the religious artifacts, some clearly
bearing the imprint of Rome, were exactly what the experts did not expect
to find at this "outpost of an outpost," this remote extension of the St.
Augustine mission system, according to David Hurst Thomas, lead
archaeologist at the St. Catherine’s site and a curator at the American
Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The discovery shows that while the friars had personally pledged a life of
poverty, they realized that the native people had not, Thomas said. "It
appears that the friars had an unusual off-the-books economic system,
probably in deerskin trade, that made their mission a successful
enterprise, not only economically but spiritually. Without this, their
only supply lines would have been those coming sporadically from Cuba and
Mexico," he said. It's possible there was trade with the Indians and
possibly with the French and English, he said.

"You have to realize that at one point there were about 1,000 Guale
Indians living around the mission, and it was a system that became
mutually beneficial," Thomas said.

"Consider that you have, at the most, two barefoot friars dropped off at a
site where there were about 300 armed Indian warriors. There is going to
be give-and-take," Thomas added.

The friars also were highly successful in their conversion of Christians,
he said, from the number of Indians who were wearing religious medallions.

According to Blanton, local chiefs often gained in status among their
people by interacting with the Spaniards, and the friars clearly came to
identify with the indigenous people.

"The Franciscans had taken vows of pacifism," he said. "If you are going
to be confronted by a colonizing group, I would say that these were the
people you wanted to have in your midst. It certainly was a vast
improvement over what happened in Central and South America, which is a
time that is associated with abuses by the Spanish.

"The evidence found in the ground overwhelmingly suggests that the Indians
were holding onto many of their world-view and traditions," Blanton said.

"The friars knew how far they could push and when they went too far, the
results for them were disastrous. During that time, they were the ones who
had the most adapting to do."

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