12:00 a.m. June 7 Special to the Austin American-Statesman

I wasn’t familiar with the sounds an alligator made until my recent visit to Beaumont. In fact, I was only in town for 15 minutes prior to hearing an interesting cacophony of alligator hisses, snorts and air pops that resulted from 3,000 pounds of jaw-crushing force devouring his lunch. Big Al, the appropriately named 13½-foot, 1,003-pound, 80-year-old alligator is the star of Gator Country (www.gatorrescue.com), where 370 of his intimidating relatives roam the expansive grounds and a dozen ponds. Standing safely among the crowd, I was thankful not to be the brave soul hand-tossing bits of chicken into the gaping mouth of the largest alligator in captivity in the state of Texas.

But visitors at this rescue facility can get just about as close as they want, safely interacting and learning about these creatures by holding and feeding them — and even swimming and sitting on those with duct-taped snouts. Entertaining, educational shows reveal facts about a variety of the property’s residents including crocodiles, pythons, tortoises and all four species of venomous snakes found in Texas. Gator Country provides an appropriate introduction to this bayou area of Southeast Texas sitting on the banks of the Neches River just 25 miles from the Louisiana border.