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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Antoine, a rare white alligator, will be on display through the summer at Hogle Zoo starting Saturday. It is on loan from New Orleans.

He's got creamy white skin, piercing blue eyes and is one of only 10 in the world.

A rare white alligator is at Hogle Zoo for the summer, on loan through October from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

But don't make the mistake of calling 9-foot, 220-pound, 19-year-old Antoine an albino. He and his nine brothers have an unusual genetic mutation called Leucism (pronounced LOO-sism).

"Because of their pigment, they'll sunburn," said Shane Provstgaard, a reptile keeper at Hogle. To keep the alligator's white skin from turning red, the exhibit has been constructed so no sunlight will enter Antoine's enclosure.

Leucistic animals such as Antoine have no pigment cells, giving them their white color. Their eyes do have pigment, most often blue. Albinos, on the other hand, have pigment cells that don't work, and the skin color looks off-white or yellow. The irises of their eyes are colorless, showing red or pink blood through the eye.

"The odds of any of them surviving in the wild are about zero," said zookeeper Jeff Landry. Because of their color, he said, the alligators cannot hide from predators and do not blend in with their swamp environment to capture food. He compares their condition to white tigers.

Antoine was one of 18 baby white alligators found in a bayou southwest of New Orleans in August of 1987 — the only recorded discovery of white alligators. In the nest were also seven normal-colored gators.

They were eventually taken to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. Ten of the white alligators are still alive. The zoo is home to many of them, and the Louisiana Land and Exploration Co. houses the rest.

Hogle Zoo director Craig Dinsmore worked with many of the white creatures when he was employed at the Audubon Zoo prior to his post at Hogle and said he was amazed at their striking beauty. One of the highlights, he said, was carrying one onto the field of the New Orleans Superdome during half-time of a Monday-night football game.

Antoine — called the "Ghost of the Bayou" for Hogle's exhibit — dines on as many as 10 dead rats a week and lies in a pool of 82-degree water. The new temporary exhibit replaces last year's tropical-butterfly enclosure and replicates a Louisiana swamp.

In addition, baby normal-colored alligators, bullfrogs and a cottonmouth snake (also known as water moccasin) are part of the exhibit.

"The whole idea was to try and bring something fresh and new for our guests, because we can't open a new multimillion-dollar exhibit each year," Dinsmore said. "They literally transformed this building to take you to another place."

Through the campaign "Wonderlands not Wastelands," the zoo is also hoping to educate people about protecting wetlands. In 1970, American alligators were listed as an endangered species, because they were being hunted for their unique skin, and many of their ecosystems had been destroyed.

"It's been said that a lot of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was because of the destruction of the wetlands. They were a natural buffer to the hurricanes," Dinsmore said.

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Walk-around demonstrations at the zoo will feature a live baby alligator for guests to get an up-close look and touch, as well as educational games and presentations on a gator's ecosystem and lifestyle.

The "Ghost of the Bayou" will open to the public on Saturday. Provstgaard said the zoo will be getting a broad-snouted caiman crocodile this summer that will join the two Siamese crocodiles the zoo already cares for. Public feedings for the latter two creatures will be every Saturday at 1:45 p.m. starting in June, when they will be fed in their outdoor pool.

The white gator, though, is far more unusual.

"It's a very rare animal," Provstgaard said. "You're not likely to ever see it again."


E-mail: astowell@desnews.com