Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Arts + Culture For the love of Claude

For the love of Claude

Cal Academy celebrates the albino alligator's 21st birthday with a big bash.


Who among us native San Franciscans does not remember the Academy of Sciences alligators while growing up? Pressing our faces against the glass pane meant for our safety, throwing the (horrible! ill-advised!) penny into their lagoon as if their scaled presence could better will our wishes into being than similar hurls at Swan Lake?

Sadly, most of our scaly friends were sold off when the Academy had to close to fix damages done by the 1989 earthquake. But when it reopened in 2008, there was a new croc in town, and his name was Claude, the albino alligator. He was deaf and mainly blind, but there were new restrictions against throwing coinage at him. Much rejoicing in the City by the Bay.

Now comes word that Claude is finally legal to drink, and that you can celebrate the moment with him at the Academy’s weekly Nightlife event on Thu/15, where museum staffers will tell the tale of his reptilian journey across this mortal plane. Like every year, fans will sing him happy “hatchday.” Rumor has it that there will even be a Claude cocktail, named in honor of the noble creature.

I got a chance to email with Brenda Melton, who is the curator of Claude’s watery lair. She told us that he enjoys bathtime, could never have survived in the wild, and isn’t actually so lonely, even after that tragic Saturday night in early 2009 when his would-be life partner, the melanin-equipped Bonnie, turned out to be no partner at all.

Claude, we love you. All the kisses. (Air kisses, from a safe distance. We respect your animal nature and believe boundaries to be healthy in any relationship.)

48 HILLS I love Claude and wish to know him on a more intimate basis. What is his diet?

BRENDA MELTON Claude eats a specially formulated, nutrient-rich diet for captive alligators. We refer to it as “gator chow.”

48 HILLS What does he do for fun?

BRENDA MELTON Animal enrichment is an important part of our husbandry programs, and our biologists work closely with exhibit designers to develop habitats that are enriching for each live animal in our aquarium. We conduct regular enrichment sessions with Claude to keep him stimulated and comfortable with our biologists. This often includes target training, which allows Claude to get familiar with swimming to a particular area of his swamp for feedings or cleaning. He also enjoys getting baths from our team!

Claude in dreamboat mode.
Claude in dreamboat mode.

48 HILLS We heard about Bonnie. Is Claude fine by himself after their unfortunate pairing, or does he get lonely for companionship?

BRENDA MELTON Claude has been living happily in his exhibit since Bonnie’s departure and enjoys spending time up on his heated rock. While he is the only alligator in the Academy’s swamp, he is joined by several snapping turtles and dozens of freshwater fish who keep him company.

48 HILLS How rare is the albino alligator? Are there others in captivity?

BRENDA MELTON Because albino alligators do not have the ability to camouflage and they are quickly spotted by predators, their lifespans in the wild are relatively short. Claude, like other captive albino alligators in public aquariums, came to the Academy from the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida, a facility also accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

48 HILLS What is he receiving in terms of birthday presents this time around?

BRENDA MELTON On Thursday night, the Academy is hosting a special NightLife event in honor of Claude’s milestone 21st birthday (for adults 21+). During the daytime, Academy visitors can gather around the swamp to enjoy a special “hatchday” edition of our Swamp Discovery program, where an Academy presenter will share the story of Claude’s fascinating life history.

Thu/15, 6-10pm, $12-15
California Academy of Sciences, SF
More info and tickets here.

Caitlin Donohue
Caitlin Donohue grew up in the Sunset and attended Jefferson Elementary School. She writes about weed, sex, perreo, and other methods of dismantling power structures. Her current center of operations is Mexico City.


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