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Behind the Alligator Pet Trade

Thanks to the Internet, the illicit and dumb practice of buying gators continues.

Behind the Alligator Pet Trade
[Photo: Flickr user Trish Hartmann]

What would you do if you peeked over your neighbor’s fence, and saw an alligator hanging out on the patio?

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Although this scenario seems implausible, it actually isn’t. Last May, residents of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn spotted a 3-foot-long gator sunning itself by their neighbor’s backyard wading pool and called the police, who took him away. It was just one of a rash of similar reports from across the country in recent years.

Blame it on the Internet. Although it’s illegal in many states to own exotic pets, including New York, that doesn’t stop people from making contact with unscrupulous dealers online, and buying them anyway. Reptile specialists say alligators are some of the most misunderstood exotic animals out there, and one that only serious professionals or extremely experienced hobbyists should even consider owning.

But as their stories attest, this message is clearly not getting through.

Because the trade in baby alligators is largely black market, official stats are difficult to come by. But anecdotally, the numbers of rescued alligators fall somewhere between the levels of “way less than cats and dogs” and “holy crap, I can’t believe there are that many alligators out there.” For example, in the past four years, Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, an Arizona-based nonprofit involved in education and preservation efforts around reptiles, has recovered over 80 alligators in his state alone.

“During a routine traffic stop they found 32 alligators on one of those toy haulers that were brought to us,” says Johnson, who runs a sanctuary where he keeps the animals and tries to find homes for them at zoos. “This is a big problem.”

YouTube videos show people feeding their alligators and trying to teach them to do tricks inside makeshift enclosures. The Washington Times recently ran a story reporting that alligators were eclipsing pit bulls as the trendy pet of choice for drug lords. Last year, Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies found a 5-foot-long alligator guarding 34 pounds of marijuana in the Castro Valley, east of San Francisco.

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When the owner was arrested, he said he’d purchased the animal 16 years earlier to commemorate the death of Tupac Shakur.

So where do these recreational gators come from? Alligators are native to the U.S., where they live in a number of states including Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi. (Crocodiles also live in the U.S., but are far less plentiful, and are only found in parts of Florida.) Johnson of the Phoenix Herpetological Society says many of the alligators he deals with that were illegal pets allegedly came from Florida, which has a healthy alligator farming industry. Most Florida alligator farms play by the state’s strict rules: Animals are bred for their meat and skin, not as pets. “Florida’s regulations prohibit fly-by-night type dealers to legally possess and sell baby alligators,” writes Jason Waller, a biologist with the Alligator Management Program in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email.

They are also sometimes used as tourist attractions. In 2012, the media went crazy over the story of a Tampa Bay-area alligator farmer who was taping shut the jaws of a juvenile alligator named Burger, and hiring him out to swim with children at pool parties. (Although the practice wasn’t technically illegal, he caved to pressure from concerned animal lovers.)

But the black market is the black market, and not everybody in the alligator biz always plays by the rules.

“There’s no accountability when you can sit behind the screen and do what you want to do,” says Greg Graziani of Graziani Reptiles Inc., an exotic reptile dealer in Florida who starred on Animal Planet’s Python Hunters. Graziani says he won’t sell a live animal to anybody unless he’s talked to them on the phone first. But says there are bad apples in the industry who don’t ask many questions. “To not check the age of the individual purchasing, not to question their husbandry skills or the laws [governing pet reptiles] where they live, that’s unethical.”

Alligators, say reptile experts, are often an “impulse buy” for young men.

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Israel Dupont, head of the Florida-based Croc Rescue Network, a loosely affiliated group of specialists that helps recover abandoned alligators around the country, received an unsolicited email from a woman recently that read:

My 19-year old son purchased an alligator through an online pet company…We’ve been doing our best to keep it healthy and happy. As it continues to grow, I’m afraid we will no longer have the resources to care for it.

“They don’t understand that this is not a pet lizard, cat, or puppy,” says Dupont. “If you buy a 10-inch-long cute baby alligator, you’re buying what’s going to grow into a 10-foot-long, 700-pound dragon.”

Alligators grow almost a foot a year, can live up to 80 years, and grow to be 1,000 pounds and over 10 feet long. Many hobbyists are simply unprepared to go the long haul.

There have been a handful of famous cases of crocodilians being “tamed”–Chicago-area educator Jim Nesci’s pet gator, Bubba, can turn on his hose and take a drink, and regularly lets small children sit on his back. The infamous Melbourne “croc lady” Vicki Lowing has several that snuggle on the bed with her children and pets. But overwhelmingly, people who know alligators do not recommend them as pets.

“If they see something as a threat, they snap down on something, and they don’t let go until they tear it off,” says Graziani. “Letting the public interact with alligators is just a very, very poor idea.”

Unwanted alligators are often dumped in public waterways. An albino alligator was recovered in Mountain Lake Park in San Francisco’s Presidio neighborhood in 1998, for example. Johnson recovered a 125 pounder in a lake on a remote homestead near the Grand Canyon. Although gator dumping takes care of the owner’s problem, it obviously represents a potential danger to the surrounding community. Although alligators do not normally attack people, it is not unheard of, and even juveniles can do some serious damage. A two-foot-long alligator could remove the fingers of a small child, under the right circumstances, says Dupont.

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Although there are cases of people owning and taking good care of their alligators, just as there are people who own and care for other exotic and dangerous pets such as cobras and pythons, the majority of people Johnson and Dupont come into contact with do not. Oftentimes the animals are emaciated or diseased.

In a case that is both tragic and horrifying, Johnson describes rescuing one seven-and-a-half-foot alligator from a residence where the owners had become so scared of their own pet, they’d locked him permanently in the backyard enclosure, and thrown away the key.

“They just threw the food over the fence at him for years,” says Johnson. When Johnson opened the gate to rescue the animal, it came out charging, most likely starving, he says.

The alligator bought in Tupac’s memory died a just few days after its rescue from malnutrition and pneumonia.

“Their upkeep is expensive,” says Johnson, who says he spends $5,000 a month on a fake rainstorm for his alligator enclosure, in order to combat Arizona’s oft-soaring temperatures.

The solution to the problem of wanton alligator ownership and abandonment, says Dupont, is education. “People are buying and selling real thinking, feeling animals as objects,” says Dupont. “On the Internet, looking at sharp-colored photographs of these different animals reinforces that, and it’s like going through a Target catalog shopping for housewares.”

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He’s not asking people to love, hug, and kiss alligators, he says.

“That would not be smart. But I am asking people to respect them.”

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