19 Aug Benny Cenac of Houma and the Endangered American Alligator
Just over fifty years ago American alligators were heavily hunted until they were eventually designated as an ‘endangered species,’ in danger of extinction. Two decades of collective efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, and individual farms and refuges like Benny Cenac’s Houma-area Golden Ranch across the Southeastern region of the United States paved the way for one of the first endangered species success stories to date. Local philanthropist, Benny Cenac, owner of Houma businesses Cenac Marine Services and Golden Ranch Farms – Louisiana’s largest privately owned wildlife refuge – has seen these remarkable efforts come to fruition in his own backyard.
For over 200 million years, American alligators have resided in the southeastern wetlands extending all the way from the Carolinas to the Everglades and west as far as Arkansas. The cold-blooded reptile can grow to 16 feet long and weigh well over a thousand pounds. Gators are at the top of the food chain and “help” limit the numbers of rodents and other animals that might overwhelm the wetland ecosystems of marshes, creeks, rivers, lakes, and ponds.
Wild alligators are shy and reclusive creatures that don’t typically congregate except during the breeding season—thus, captivity may lead to stress and brown-spot disease. Alligators are sensitive to light and sounds, so Benny Cenac ensures his Houma ranch holds alligators in darker conditions, minimizes external noise, and fosters individual relationships between the gators and the caretakers to reduce the possibility for stress under captivity. Adult gators achieve maximum growth in constant warmth and a substantial amount of space. Like most Houma residents, the large reptiles spend their days in an environment that hovers between 86 to 88 degrees!
Until the Civil War, alligators were typically used for food by Native Americans and some other Southeastern United States dwellers. Later, traders and hunters started peddling gator hides to be made into leather for shoes, belts, saddlebags, and other fashionable items. The first commercial alligator farm was established in Florida in the 1890s following developments in new commercial tanning processes resulting in softer, more pliable, and more durable skins.
A steady increase in demand for alligator hides eventually prompted American legislators to protect the American alligator under a 1967 law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Hunting and habitat destruction—ditching and draining land for new developments and water management— account for the estimated 10 million alligators killed between 1870 to the mid-1960s. The American alligator has since made a remarkable recovery and was taken off the endangered species list in 1987, thanks to the joint efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies enacting their own rules and protocols, and farms and alligator refuges across the Gulf Coast.
The Fish and Wildlife Service continues to protect the alligator under the Endangered Species Act classification as “threatened due to similarity of appearance.” The Service oversees the alligator harvest and sales of the animals, their skins, and products made from them, as part of efforts to prevent the illegal take and trafficking of endangered “look-alike” reptiles. American alligator populations have recovered so well that now hunting and egg collecting are permitted.
Benny Cenac’s Houma Golden Ranch: The Alligator Refuge
For nearly 200 years, after being purchased from the Ouacha and Chaouache Indians in 1744, the ranch was used for sugarcane production that continues today. Golden Ranch has always played a major role in the local economy, maintaining Benny Cenac’s first and foremost commitment: the Houma community.
After leasing the property in 1984, Benny Cenac, businessman and philanthropist from Houma, sought to preserve the history and cultural significance of the land while also providing refuge to the myriad of Louisiana-native animals that call the ranch home, including the American alligator. Mr. Cenac joined forces with other conservationists and groups intent on saving the endangered species from extinction when he made a commitment to protect and closely maintain the 52,000 acres of freshwater marsh, sugar cane fields, a variety of species of trees, and a wide selection of thriving wildlife.
Today, Golden Ranch is home to one of the largest alligator refuges in the country, and one of the only captive breeding operations dedicated to sustaining and preserving a healthy balance of alligators.
Every time Benny Cenac of Houma takes his boat down the winding bayou waterways, he looks out to his collection of gators and remarks on how deeply critical it is that these stunning animals are protected for future generations. Mr. Cenac stresses that the species must be regulated before they risk slipping to endangered status once again. This includes an alligator breeding program where eggs are collected and incubated until they hatch, with many being released back into the wild to maintain a healthy and diverse population. In the wild, hatching success is often lower than 60% whereas gator farming helps to improve overall survival rates and result in larger, longer-living alligators.
Benny Cenac is deeply thankful to those who help him care for the animals, including his ranch crew, who work with the gators around the clock. In addition to his ranch crew, Benny Cenac’s Houma ranch also offers internship opportunities for high school and college students interested in veterinary medicine, reptiles, conservation efforts, farming, or simply the company of the adorable animals across the property. Interns are provided the opportunity to learn about the business of conservation and are fortunate to work hands-on with the animals on the property.