From Alligators to the Great Pumpkin Mystery: The Nature Reserve and Horticulturist Teams Share Their Favorite Stories

On a hot mid-afternoon, the Forest Park Forever Land Management team make their way from their respective zones, which are scattered throughout the Park, to the shop for their monthly staff meeting.

Some file in separately and others in small groups. They greet their colleagues while scanning the room looking for an empty seat at one of the tables. Homemade brownies are shared as Shawnell Faber, Director of Land Management, begins working her way down the agenda. Work anniversaries are celebrated, reports are given and at this particular meeting, stories are shared.

The Nature Reserve and Horticulturist teams (within Land Management) spend every week day out in the Park, and with over 13 million annual visitors, well, they’ve seen it all. They know all the stories.

“Tell the turtle story, Eric,” someone urges.

“I’m not going to do the turtle one,” Gardener Eric Hazley, responds. “That one is getting old, ain’t it?”

“Let me tell another one first and see if you all like it,” he says.

Playing Chicken with a Hawk
“I’m traveling down Government Road, and I see this hawk coming fast. I look up, and he’s level with my Gator [utility vehicle]. He’s got a rabbit in his mouth, and he’s coming straight at the Gator. I stop right in the middle of the street, and he drops the rabbit and goes straight up right when it seemed like it was going to hit. It freaked me out. He flew around and started hollerin’ and hollerin.’ I just took off, but he came back, swooped down and got the rabbit.”  

The room erupts in laughter and someone reminds him of another story.

“Yeah, that’s another one,” Hazley says.

Runaway Peacocks
“It was the second year that I got here. I would be in the Gator, and there would be this giant peacock. He’d come all the way into zone 2, so I would chase him back across the street and make him hop back over that wall — because the peacock’s house is right there by the wall in that corner. Then two days would go by, and he’s back out again. I’d chase him over, and he’d jump back over the fence. One day I go in the Zoo and tell them, ‘Listen, your peacocks are getting out.’ And they built a whole new peacock house just because I told them.”  

Driving the City Bus and Rescuing Turtles
Horticulturist Patrick Greenwald shares an encounter with a snapping turtle. “I was driving down Government Drive towards Liberal Arts Bridge, and there were maybe four individuals from the office gathered around a snapping turtle that was in the middle of the road. I stopped and tried to help, but I’m not really good at getting snapping turtles into buckets,” he says. “It was in the middle of the traffic, and a MetroBus came up and stopped. The driver got out of the bus, came over to us and said, ‘I have one of these at home.’ She picked it up, put it into the bucket, and went back into her bus. It was pretty humbling to all of us,” he says.  

Alligators in the Park?
There was that time when Billy Haag, Nature Works Field Coordinator, spent an afternoon looking for an alligator. “We got a call from the Visitor Center that there was a visitor who was adamant that they saw an alligator in Post-Dispatch Lake. We kept saying I don’t think we have alligators here. It’s probably a turtle or a stick, but she said, ‘No, I saw it nose to tail. It was about two feet long. It was definitely an alligator.’ So I spent my entire afternoon driving around Post-Dispatch Lake looking for an alligator. We didn’t see anything, but I still make laps around just in case because I’m really excited that there’s an alligator in the Park.”

The room breaks out into a fit of laughter.   

The Wild Watermelon Patch
Then there was the time Tony Boudreau, Horticulture Apprentice, received a call about the “farm growing up by the Pavilion.” He had no idea what was going on, but when he went to check it out, he found a watermelon patch and a bunch of beans growing next to the World’s Fair Pavilion. Could those have ended up there after a catered event? “I picked all the beans and harvested the watermelon,” Boudreau explains. “I brought it back to the shop, and we ate it for lunch.”

The Mystery Pumpkin
The tale of great pumpkin remains the staff’s biggest mystery. “Last year, we were doing trash, and we found a carved pumpkin full of hundred-dollar bills and incense and all sorts of things,” says Carolyn Mulligan, Seasonal Gardener. “I was afraid to touch it, so we called Roman.”

Roman Fox, Horticulture Superintendent, explains this cryptic phone call, “I get a call and it was like, hey I need you over here immediately.” When Fox asked for more information, he hears, “I can’t put it into words what’s happening down here.”

Fox arrives on the scene and helps empty the pumpkin. There was almost $2,000 dollars’ worth of fake 100-dollar bills. They pinned one of the $100-dollar bills on the bulletin board as a keepsake.

And Finally, the Turtle Story
Just as the meeting is winding to a close, someone urges Hazley to tell the turtle story. Another adds, “Tell it like no one has ever heard it before.”

Hazley laughs but obliges, “I just want to let you all know, animals are smart and peculiar just like we are. One day I was kind of chilling by Post-Dispatch Lake, and there was a turtle on the side of the bank. He went into the water and started going across. This little bird flew down and landed on the turtle. He stayed on his back all the way until the turtle got to the other bank.”

The group laughs, clearly having heard the story before. “I’m serious,” Hazley adds. “The turtle climbed up the bank, and the bird looked down at it and flew off. He rode the turtle across the water. I was like, Why are you doing that when you can fly, man? It just blew my mind. Animals are like us in a way. Why fly when I could just jump on his back and ride across the water? That’s the way I feel sometimes.”