Sometimes Chucky has three-chicken days, and sometimes Chucky has six-chicken days. But Chucky does not enjoy no-chicken days -- and Thursday was his second in a row.
So Chucky was hungry. And this was a problem, because Chucky, a 12-foot-long half-ton American alligator who had spent the past 15 years here at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, was nowhere to be found.
Hurricane Ivan's eye blasted through the resort town of Gulf Shores early Thursday, ripping down the fence around Chucky's pond. Zoo Director Patty Hall loves Chucky, as she loves every animal in her care, but she still dispatched a four-man crew with shotguns and pistols to kill him if necessary. The heavily armed men sloshed their way through the waist-deep water that Ivan deposited on the zoo grounds, bringing a raw mix of the Wild Kingdom and the Wild West to the aftermath of the storm.
"As long as Chucky's been fed, Chucky's happy," said Hall, wearing hip boots and wielding a plywood board in case she encountered water moccasins -- or Chucky. "Right now, I don't think he's happy."
Ivan's storm surges carried the Gulf of Mexico almost a mile inland, flinging boats into oak trees and oak trees into boats, converting the 67-acre zoo into waterfront property. It tore the roof off the zoo's gift shop, ripped down its oak trees, flooded its feed house and knocked down its perimeter fences. It also created an escape opportunity for Chucky, some fallow deer and a white peacock named Cameo, who is best known around the nonprofit zoo for knocking on Hall's office door every morning.
Thursday afternoon, Hall was hoping that Chucky had slipped into the state park behind his pond, returning to the freedom of the swampy jungle that had sustained his ancestors before condos, motels and waterfront grills invaded Gulf Shores. But she knew that if Chucky strayed into the floodwaters covering Route 59, or the nearby shopping plaza, or anywhere else within range of human civilization, he would have to be shot.
Mother Nature has her moments here in Gulf Shores, and Ivan was certainly one of them, but she no longer runs the place. And as Hall's husband Dan pointed out, a gator can "come up on a person real fast."
"We've got to think of human life first," said Patty Hall, 56, whose red bangs flopped out of her ZooLifer ball cap. "But this is just crushing. These animals are our family."
Around 1 p.m., four shots rang out in the zoo's parking lot, and Hall's crew dragged a dead gator out of the water. But the victim was only about five feet long. Chucky was still at large.
Chucky has lived at the zoo since it was founded in 1989. He is hand-fed chicken lunches every day, which has made him a bit fat and lazy, but he is still a popular attraction for the zoo's 60,000 annual visitors. Hall arrived at the zoo a few years after Chucky; she jokes that she left her job at a Connecticut publishing house because she was tired of working with animals and shoveling manure. The sign on her office door says "Yes, I Do Bite," but she is a softie when it comes to the rodents and reptiles in her care.
Hall and her staff managed to relocate 265 animals before Ivan's arrival -- including lions, tigers and bears, as well as kangaroos, monkeys and a 1,400-pound yak -- but they had to leave a few behind. Moving 1,400-pound yaks and Siberian tigers and Capuchin monkeys -- one of whom took a bite out of her left index finger -- is not an easy job. Hall even climbed onto a roof to try to catch Cameo, but the elegant bird just flew to the ground. Once Hall climbed down, Cameo returned to her rooftop perch.
Hall did not hold a grudge; she would do almost anything for her animals. In fact, she admits that she might have neglected to inform the proper authorities where she was taking them.
"They're at an undisclosed location," said the zoo's facilities manager, Rusty Gilbert. "I could tell you where, but then I'd have to shoot you."
Gilbert was joking, but he was also carrying a large shotgun, and was dragging an extremely cute little deer who had just been on its receiving end. "We used tranquilizers," Gilbert explained. "We're not going to kill the deer." A few minutes later, the guns were trained on another deer -- but it scampered away across Route 59, and the crew returned to the zoo grounds to search for Chucky.
Hall has no idea when she will be able to bring the animals back to the zoo, or what will happen to the animals while they are away, or whether the zoo will survive. It is going to need a lot more money to rebuild. But Thursday, her thoughts were with the missing. And when her husband whispered some news about one of the escapees through a chain-link fence, Hall dissolved into tears. "Okay," she said. "Okay."
Her crew had found Cameo, alive and well.
Chucky was still on the loose.