Beginning in Miami’s Little Havana and ending at the small town of Havana, FL near the Georgia border, Highway 27 was the road in which millions of post-war tourists and migrants first ventured across the state. Now just a long stretch of road spanning across miles of sugar fields, it was once the backbone of Florida’s tourism industry; before Disney World existed and odd roadside attractions were the norm.
Just south of the town of South Bay on US 27 are what remains of Everglades Gatorland, a small roadside zoo which became known for their live alligators. It began as a gas station run by J.C. Bowen, former mayor of South Bay and his wife Mary Lou. Because tourists who stopped at the station would ask where they can see alligators and other native Florida animals, they started Gatorland in 1959 with alligators caught in the lake just behind the building. They would eventually expand and acquire exotic animals such as ocelots, coatimundi and a king vulture.
In the 1960s, alligator poaching had gotten out of hand. In 1965, poachers used a .22-caliber rifle to shoot and carry off three alligators from Gatorland while the night watchman was off-duty. The American Alligator was put on the first endangered species list in 1967.
That same year, Florida was the first in the country to establish new regulations for captive animals which covered minimum pen size for each group of animals, sanitation and animal care. These new regulations put many roadside zoos out of business, but Gatorland were able to meet the requirements and stay in business. The establishment stayed strong throughout the 70s and 80s. By the 90s though, there weren’t any gators left as the time and cost to care for them wasn’t worth it. Business wasn’t booming anymore as the Bowens continued selling souvenirs to the rare tourist who would use the restroom or ask for directions.
Near the lake where the alligators were caught, the concrete pens and cages which held the animals remain and the souvenir shop still sits on the side of Highway 27, gutted and overgrown, with a faded sign still advertising “Live Alligators”.