A Walk With Nature
By Marty D. Authement - The Courier

It was just a hobby - really.  About 20 years ago, James and Betty Provost built some ponds behind their Gibson home for ducks and a variety of exotic birds.  It was a fairly simple task for James, who owned a trucking and excavation company.

It was a quiet little spot in the backyard to unwind.  Just a hobby.

Then the oil bust of the early 1980s disrupted their life.  Like so many business owners in the area, the plummeting economy hit hard, and the couple had to make some tough decisions.  They would either have to give up the hobby they so dearly loved, or somehow make it pay for itself.  They opted to keep their hobby, and Wildlife Gardens was born.  With the assistance and advice of local tourism officials the couple opened their ponds and birdhouse to tours.  Through modest in scale, it quickly caught on and the couple were soon hosting visitors from around the world.

The interest allowed them to expand and continue building their dream.  They created a swamp filled with local plants and animals, with either James or Betty guiding visitors through, telling local history and giving information on plants, alligators, nutrias, bobcats, birds and other wildlife.

James' other hobby, wood carving, is also part of the family business.  His cluttered, often-used workshop is part of the tour, and the champion carver's wares are available in the gift shop.

"When I was little, I never dreamed I could make a living doing this," Betty said.  "Just like anything you do for money, it's a lot of work, but we're doing what we love."

And the dream has continued to grow.

Along the way, a trapper's cabin was built in the swamp, filled with genuine hunting, fishing and trapping items donated by family, friends and visitors.  It's a rustic cottage, alive with history.

"We've had some older people come through here who were trappers and fishermen," Betty said, " and they'll leave with a tear in their eye."

And it's that sort of sharing that makes all the long hours worth the effort.

"We want to do more than just give a tour," she said.  "We want to share our heritage."

"I can't walk through (the trapper's cabin) without seeing my grandma and grandpa, and remember what they taught me...  I only hope someone can say that about me someday."

But the trapper's cabin has inspired more than fond memories.  On several occasions, visitors commented that the cabin should be "fixed up" so people could sleep in it, in the swamp.

About five years ago, the couple decided there was enough interest to give it a shot, so they built a single cabin in a natural swamp on another part of the property and opened it as a bed and breakfast.  Shortly after, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune rented one of the cabins and included Wildlife Gardens in a story he wrote on travel through south Louisiana.  The day after the article ran, the couple received nine reservations.  Three more cabins soon followed.

"To this day, we still have people come here with copies of that same article," Betty, said.

And come they do, from all over the world.  Just this week, visitors from Switzerland and Germany were enjoying the Gibson attraction.  The gardens are actually in a slow period right now.  Summer is traditionally busy, as is any popular vacation attraction.  But business at the gardens is also brisk in winter, when visitors from the northern United States are seeking warmer weather.

There are also local school children, many of whom have the tour incorporated into class assignments.  The gardens also get visits by groups from the Terrebonne Association for Retarded Citizens.

"There 's something about them (TARC clients) and the animals," she said.  "They'll come here, quiet, unemotional, but show them an animal and they are all smiles.  They come alive and get very excited."

There are also the repeat customers, like the motorcycle group, which makes an annual trek in spring.  The 30 or so riders rent all the cabins, take boat tours with the Provosts' son, and spend the early evening around a bonfire.  A local friend of the group generally hosts a crawfish boil for all involved.

But no matter where the visitors come from, they have one thing in common - they want to see alligators.

"If you don't have alligators, you don't have a tour," Betty said.

And the visitors have plenty to look at.  In one pond of the walking tour through the swamp are the grand couple of Wildlife Gardens - Helen and Troy.  The pair annually hatch 40 to 50 young.  Along with another mating pair on the property, the gardens will birth nearly 100 baby alligators each year.  Several emplacements in the swamp hold alligators at different growth stages, from the infants, which easily fit in a brave visitor's hand, to the young adults ready for sale to processing plants.

A few years back, the couple decided 12-foot-long Troy was ready for a second mate, so they introduced Jezabell to the pond.  Although the arrangement would have been normal in the wild, Helen would have nothing to do with it, and did everything necessary to keep Troy and Jezabell apart.  After a few lonely months, Jezabell was moved to another pond, with another male.

Names for the animals are common throughout the gardens.  The eldest pair of ducks are George and Gracey.  And a recent addition, a red fox named Todd, got his name from a Disney character.

It's the type of homestyle touch that gives Wildlife Gardens its character.  It's the touch of a couple who are living a dream first, and building a business second.

"We have some plans we're still working on, but we're about as big as we want to be," Betty said.  "This is our retirement and we don't want much more to handle.  Some places will start and just want to get bigger and bigger.  We're happy where we are."