Friday, March 27, 2009

Albino Alligator back in California Academy of Sciences

Claude, the rare albino alligator, is back in his swamp at the California Academy of Sciences after being in sick-bay since January - minus both a 'pinky' toe and companion, Bonnie, but sporting new skills under his scales!

Claude disappeared from the public view after Bonnie, a dark-coloured alligator who shares the swamp with him, bit him and caused infection to set in in his foot. Despite being dosed on antibiotics, the infection developed and the small toe on the end of his foot - the 'pinky' - was amputated.

But this week, having made a full recovery, he is not only back but can hold up his mighty head as 'the alligator who knows his name!'

Call out 'Claude' and he will respond, especially as he knows some tasty treat will be waiting for him.

As an albino, Claude's eyesight is limited which was the cause of the problem.

'He is prone to erratic movements,' said Andrew Ng, Communications

Specialist. In the throes of such a movement, he startled Bonnie.

'Bonnie, naturally, bit him,' he said.

Soon after, staff noticed a swelling on Claude's right, front foot and so on January 14 he was taken away to be nursed in sick-bay in the basement of the academy. Amputation followed, but after surgery he healed quickly, said Andrew.

Staff then turned their attention for the next few weeks to helping Claude, who is about 14-years-old, develop navigational skills both for his safety and their benefit.

'They have taught him to respond to when his own name is called. When he does respond, they give him a treat - something to eat,' said Andrew.

The purpose of this teaching is both to help him avoid any further clashes with the feisty 'no-one messes with me!' Bonnie, and to help staff move Claude into a corner when they want to clean his tank, for example.

Claude returned to his swamp on Wednesday after a ten-week absence, but on his lonesome. He has swapped places with Bonnie who has temporarily been put in the basement. This leaves him to sprawl in peace on his favourite spot, the heated basking rock.

'Bonnie has been taken out so he can reacquaint himself with the swamp without distractions from her. I imagine she will be back in four to six weeks,' said Andrew.

During his absence, though, some of Claude's many fans - 'Hoping for a quick recovery for the very handsome Claude. He is sorely missed!' said Vince - have been commenting on a news spot for Claude on the academy's website -

'So why is there only one heated rock for two gators? Why can’t they each have a rock so they don’t have to fight over them, and avoid future injuries?' asked AManess.

Whilst Kim asked, 'I noticed Bonnie hasn’t taken Claude’s usual spot on the rock. Do you think this is a territorial thing, or does Bonnie not have the same love for heated spot?'

Staff member Helen answered:

'Like all albino alligators, Claude has relatively poor eyesight. Therefore he prefers to spend most of his time on the Swamp exhibit’s heated rock, where he won’t bump into anything. Bonnie, however, has excellent eyesight, so she is happy to spend more time in the water.'

Claude's social skills with Bonnie were certainly not of the best when he first arrived at the academy from Florida, a point Helen also commented on.

'Before coming to the Academy, Claude had never lived with other alligators, so his social skills are still developing. In the long run, Claude’s experience in the exhibit will be much more enriching and stimulating if he shares the space with other animals - including other members of his species,' wrote Helen.

At the opening weekend last July, Peter, the docent, put it more bluntly:

'He tends to chuck her off the they're not an item!' - see previous blog:

But while their relationship might not be perfect, things have greatly improved. 'I have watched them many times both sharing the rock, cuddling you might say!' said Andrew.

So are they an item?

'We haven't seen them getting amorous,' he replied tactfully. In the beginning, Andrew recalled, he did not see them sharing the rock but now, he said, they rest their heads on each others backs.

So even alligators have a heart?!

'They definitely have hearts!' said Andrew.

'When Bonnie comes back in four to six weeks we'll see how they interact. Hopefully all will go well.'

Thousands of visitors had already poured into the academy that morning. Among those excitedly craning their heads over the swamp were Jack, who has just celebrated his fifth birthday, and his grandmother, Susan, who are from the Bay Area.

Susan, as a member of the academy, had brought her grandchildren to the preview event last summer and Jack had remembered the alligators and wanted to see them again - 'he has a memory like an elephant,' she said, appropriate to where we were standing!

So what did Jack think of Claude today?

'I think he's very ferocious. And I see the turtles,' he added, looking at the alligator snapping turtles swimming around the swamp.

'I don't think Claude would eat the turtles because they would hurt his teeth,' he said.

But Susan and Jack had encountered gargantuan problems in getting to the academy. They had made their first attempt the previous day but after driving around in vain for an hour-and-a-half to find a parking space near enough for Jack to walk to the academy, they had had to return home.

'So that's why today we said we would be here early, but even by 10.15 - 10.20, there were no more than a dozen spaces left,' Susan said of the carpark.

Their difficulties were probably compounded, Susan acknowledged, by the weather and the fact that it is the school Spring Break. Temperatures in San Francisco have been in the 70s this week without any of the familiar fog, and with the academy being in the Golden Gate Park it is an attractive venue in school holidays.

Reading visitor comments on the academy website, however, these difficulties are far from uncommon. The popularity of the academy is its most frequent criticism and the advice is not only to get there early, but make sure you pick up free tickets to the planetarium and 3D Bugs shows as soon as you get there because spaces are limited.

You can read many reviews on but one of the most helpful is from Jenny H of San Francisco who posted last week:

'Finally!! I was able to get into the California Academy of Science!! Yeah for me!!

This place has been super crowded every weekend since it opened. I've gone here twice on a Saturday morning and was unable to make it in. Being this is the third time, I had a game plan set up...

1. Buy tickets online in advance - this will save you some time since there is a line to buy tickets then a separate line to get in.
2. Get there bright and early to line up! We got there at 8:30 AM and waited an hour before they opened the doors
3. Go get your planetarium and 3D movie tickets first. They run out fast so be sure to make that your first stop! '

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