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Seeing the Swamp from a Safe Distance

By GORDON GARRISON

© St. Petersburg Times


Tutko holds a degree in biology, and his lecture hall is pretty large -- 90,000 acres or so. It's about two miles from the gate to the front door. This is the Babcock Wilderness Adventures, and several times each day Tutko and other wildlife interpreters take visitors on a 90-minute tour of "the real Florida."

At Babcock, it's as real as it gets. This family-owned ranch just east of Punta Gorda covers about 153 square miles -- about six times the size of Manhattan. The ranch headquarters, once the logging village of Rouxville (population 200), is 25 miles from the nearest community. In the 1940s, Fred C. Babcock ceded 65,000 acres of his holdings to the state of Florida, an area now known as the Fred C. Babcock -- Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area.

At the Babcock reception center, Tutko or another guide shows you to your seat on a swamp buggy, a rebuilt truck that seats 32 on tiers, so that everyone has a good view and a clear camera angle.

Before setting off, Tutko reported on commercial alligator farming. Babcock has no captive gators. Rather, once a year, naturalists fly by helicopter over the swamplands, looking for nests, pinpointing their locations. Then, the hard part: The naturalists walk, canoe or take airboats into the swamp to the nests, gather the eggs and take them to a laboratory on the grounds. There they are incubated until hatched. The operation is conducted under state supervision.

In the wild, birds, snakes and raccoons would devour perhaps 70 percent of the eggs. A further 20 percent of the hatchlings typically would die within the first two years. In the swamp, an alligator grows about one foot per year for the first six years of its life. But in the 89-degree water of the lab the young reptiles are fed a high-protein chow that promotes growth to an average length of 6 feet in just two years. At this point they are ready for harvesting, as Tutko puts it.

Babcock is in the alligator business, and a 6-footer provides white meat for which restaurants pay up to $10 per pound. (Visitors can try deep-fried alligator bites at the Gator Shack restaurant, next to Babcock's office/gift shop.) Alligator hides bring $40 to $45 per foot from manufacturers of belts, purses and shoes.

Neither alligator husbandry nor wilderness touring was the original intent of Edward Vose Babcock. His first business was logging, which he started in Ashtola, Penn., in 1889. In 1914 he purchased his South Florida spread, which contained a huge stand of virgin longleaf pine trees.

In the 1930s, the founder's son, Fred C. Babcock, introduced cattle to the property, called the Crescent B Ranch. Today, it is one of the largest cattle ranches in the state. The company also engages in experimental breeding. Senepols, for example, are a cross between the British Red Poll and West African Ndama; Brangus are a cross between Brahmin and Aberdeen Angus. A number of beefalo, a cross between bison and beef cattle, graze on the property, as do bison.

The present environmental tour is the result of family friends being shown around the ranch and convincing the Babcocks to open it up for the public. Now visitors learn about the cattle operation, tree farm, vegetable gardens, limestone quarry and, of course, the wildlife.

During the wildlife tour, Tutko pointed out Carolina wrens, great blue, little blue and tri-color herons, and a resident flock of sandhill cranes. He told us the streams we crossed held bream, large-mouth bass, gamboria, catfish and alligator gar. Tutko also discussed vegetation such as bromeliads, Spanish moss and wild orchids.

Visitors regularly ask about snakes, and Tutko obliged. During one of the stops on the hour-and-a-half trip, he climbed on a platform, opened a box and produced an Eastern diamondback rattler, said to be the largest poisonous snake in North America. He explains that snakes -- as well as the reserve's owls and hawks -- keep the prolific rodent populations in check.

Also at Babcock's are Eastern indigos, the largest non-venomous snake on the continent. Both these reptiles live in areas of dry scrub. The swamps also hold the poisonous cottonmouth.

About 10,000 acres within the ranch is set aside as Telegraph Cypress Swamp -- because telegraph lines had to be routed around the area. Tutko said it's a full 10 degrees cooler in swamp country than in open pasture, and that there is no mosquito problem because they prefer stagnant water for breeding, and swamp water moves.

The best of the tour is saved until near the end, at an enclosure that Tutko calls a fenced-in natural habitat. Natural for the nearly extinct Florida panther, that is.

The naturalist explained that Babcock does not have a panther, although there could be an occasional visit by one. There are believed to be less than 50 panthers still living in the wild, most living in the Everglades and Big Cypress preserves.

To show visitors what a Florida panther looks like, the Babcocks have assembled a family of five cougars, close relatives of the endangered panther. These magnificent cats run free in a six-acre compound while visitors are "caged" in a camouflaged area for the viewing. On our visit we saw one of the cougars just 3 or 4 feet from the protective fence.

Our swamp buggy worked its way slowly and quietly back to the Babcock office, passing an armadillo, a couple of wild pigs and some white-tailed deer en route. Next to the office several huts had been relocated from a swamp region used in filming the Sean Connery feature Just Cause. Gordon Garrison is a freelance writer from Oshawa, Ontario, who frequently visits Florida. If you go Babcock Wilderness Adventures is about three hours south of the bay area, east of Punta Gorda at State Road 31. Take I-75 to exit 29. A 90-minute tour costs $17.95 for adults and $9.95 ages 3 to 12. Reservations are required. Call (941) 489-3911 for reservations. Summer hours, through October, are mornings only with tours leaving at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon.

Originally published May 4, 1997



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