By Lessley Anderson
Thanks to the Internet, the illicit and dumb practice of buying gators continues.
What would you do if you peeked over your neighbor’s fence, and saw an alligator hanging out on the patio?
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.
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. More....