When I decided not to use the cover mock-up with the Steve Irwin caricature for my first book, Amanda Noble, Zookeeper Extraordinaire, I spiraled into WTH do I do now! It’s not that I was particularly enthused over the mixture of cartoon and live model in it, anyway. Plus, the live model didn’t really resemble the character. But at least it was something. As it was, I had no idea what to do next. And then there was my budget. Which was pretty much nonexistent. So, what does one do when there’s little to no money? Call on family.
The answer was right in front of me. My niece was almost the same age as the character. She was tall and brown-haired like Amanda. Long and lanky. And she lived around the corner from my house. She didn’t hesitate to agree, and her mother, my sister, went along with it. They didn’t flinch when I said I wanted a live alligator in the photo. That was because my sister had visited the same Jungleland Zoo when I did. Our kids were small, and after one of the gator exhibitions, they held a baby gator and had their photo taken. Each of them understood the image I was going for, so they were on board. And bonus, an in law was a photographer. All that was left was finding the alligator.
Not a problem when you live in the Alligator Capital of Texas. No joke. The town I lived in was given that moniker by the Texas State Legislature because the alligators outnumber the humans 3 to 1. The small community borders on part of Galveston Bay. Think lots of marshes and bogs. There’s a national wildlife refuge where visitors drive through and see the creatures snorkeling through the swamplands and lying on grassy knolls sunning themselves. The town loves their gators so much they have a big party every year to celebrate, Gatorfest. So, yeah, finding a gator wasn’t a problem.
I sent out a few emails to people I knew who knew someone, who knew someone, who owned an alligator farm. When I contacted the man, he was unable to help me, but he referred me to a place called Gator Country. The Gator Country Adventure Park was created by conservationist Gary Saurage as a refuge for nuisance alligators. Saurage had a TV show called Gator 911 which followed him and his crew around as they rescued said nuisance gators. I gave him a call and told him what I wanted—a small gator my niece could hold for a few photos, one that would eventually be a book cover—and he was game.
So, we showed up on a breezy February morning with our photographer, model, and a few other family members in tow. Mr. Saurage’s assistant greeted us then left to go get the gator we’d be using. In my mind, I’d pictured a baby alligator, maybe 2 feet long, like the one my children held at Jungleland. But when this guy returned with an alligator that was nearly 4 feet long, let’s just say I had second thoughts. And the look on my fourteen-year-old niece’s face said she did too. “You don’t have to do this,” I assured her. “Really. You don’t.” But the park attendee assured us it was perfectly safe. The alligator’s mouth was taped, and he said if you hold it right, everything will be fine. He then taught her about the alligator, its body and nature, and how to handle it with care. When he was sure she was ready, he passed the docile reptile over to her. It didn’t take her long at all to get comfortable with it. In a matter of minutes, people were coming up to her and asking questions as if she were an employee there to share her knowledge with them. We snapped a lot of photos (See the collage below.) but of course, the main one was for the cover. This cover turned out very differently than the cartoon/human mashup from before. But I liked it. It was born from a need to be creative and turned out to be an awesome experience I was happy with.