KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This white alligator has it made in the shade. Without an alligator's normal dark camouflaging color, the new inhabitant at the Knoxville Zoo would not live long while exposed to predators or the sun.
In an exhibit made to look like the Louisiana bayou with tree stumps and hanging moss, the 12-year-old American alligator spent one recent afternoon basking under a heat lamp beside a warm pool with one claw lazily dipped in the water. If outside, her skin would burn in the sun.
An albino gene makes the alligator's skin white and her eyes pinkish, and the rare find creates a popular exhibit at zoos around the country.
The exhibit at the Knoxville Zoo — marketed with the slogan "Look in Dem Eyes" in reference to a legend that good luck will follow those who see the animal — will last through Labor Day.
Zoo visitors paused in a dark lobby and peered through the glass window at her. Occasionally, one eyelid would open and reveal an inner membrane that makes the eye look milky, but otherwise the alabaster-tinted body was still.
"Is she real?" is the most common question from visitors, says Phil Colclough, assistant curator of herpetology at the zoo.
"Nobody believes she's real. They stare until she takes a breath or moves her eyes or jumps in the pool."
Other zoos and tourist attractions have white alligators in the United States, totaling around 50.
A whiter shade of pale
Some white alligators are albino, meaning they lack a dark pigment called melanin, and their eyes appear reddish because of the blood vessels underneath.
Another kind of white alligators are leucistic, meaning they have white pigment and blue eyes. The Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans has leucistic alligators found in a Louisiana swamp in 1987.
Why do coins smell?Three leucistic gators were found in 2003 on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and later seized by state officials, who also arrested the men who discovered them.
Knoxville's alligator is on loan from the Alligator Farm Zoological Park in St. Augustine, Fla., which has about 30 animals that have been acquired over the last 15 years from a commercial farmer in Cut Off, La.
The albinos are found in the same nest every year and are believed to be produced from the same male and female who both carry the recessive gene for albinism, said David Kledzik, curator of reptiles in St. Augustine.
‘Come get your albinos’
The Florida park made a deal with the farmer to get the albinos. He hatches and raises them until he is ready to give them up, he said.
"Every few years we get a call, 'Come get your albinos.' We go out there and get the albinos. We may get six or eight a trip," Kledzik said.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio also has an albino on exhibit from the Florida zoo.
The Knoxville Zoo exhibited a different albino alligator named Lily in 1997. The current alligator's name was decided by a contest and will be announced Monday.
"The public likes them a whole lot," Colclough said. "I've been here 12 years, and hardly a week goes by that someone doesn't ask where the white alligator is that was here 10 years ago."
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