I'll have a rare crocodile with my Mexican-themed kitsch, please

alligator mississippiensis at South of the Border's Reptile Lagoon

threatened American alligator

Visit South of the Border  its absurdist roadside extravaganza, stay for its surprisingly comprehensive crocodile exhibit. The kitschy South Carolina rest stop started yet another improbable attraction: a single story commercial building alongside I-95 building turned into a habitat for crocodiles, turtles and snakes.

How is this better than a roadside zoo? Well, it’s not, except they house unloved reptiles and donate money to crocodile causes. None of the animals are rescues, says Dr. Sam Seashole, a veterinarian who loves reptiles and has spent a career working with them. They just “came from other institutions.”  The 40,000 square foot reptile lagoon has a few endangered species, though, and they might one day take part in a breeding and reintroduction program–if that’s necessary.

The lagoon promises that “part of every admission goes to the Crocodile Conservation Institute, which helps save crocodiles and their habitat around the world.” That’s not exactly the reptilian version of Audubon. It’s a non-profit built to give money from South of the Border to croc causes. Animal tourists pay $5 to visit.  The Crocodile Conservation Institute’s online tax return shows a budget of only $35,000 for its first year; none of the board got paid. Dr. Seashole says they recently wired off a donation to a Philippine group.

Crocs are the real stars of the place. Reptiles in general and crocs in particular aren’t popular with either the people who live around them or with conservation groups, Dr. Seashole says.  ”They’re in big trouble,” he says. “As encroachment happens, it’s hard to make people live with crocodiles. There’s plenty of money for pandas or bears but not a lot for crocodiles.”  He’s known as the Croc Doc and has worked at other reptile attractions in the state, including the more circusy Alligator Adventure and the more natural Cross Wildlife Center and Cyprus Gardens. The reptile lagoon lies somewhere between those on the continuum of animal attractions. It makes crocs seem cool in a state that hunts alligators.
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