COLUMBIA — An unexpected guest lives behind doors marked “Employees Only” at Columbia's animal shelter: a stray alligator.
Allygator, as the staff fondly calls him, has been staying at the Central Missouri Humane Society for roughly two months after animal control workers with the Columbia/Boone County Health Department seized the reptile from an apartment where it was living in a bathtub. The owners face a fine for housing an exotic animal without the proper license.
The gator is not up for adoption or available for public viewing. At the shelter, he divides his time between an inside habitat with a feeding trough and an outside pen with a child’s wading pool.
Outside, the alligator can bask in the sun in a posh pen, with amenities including mulch, logs and the 70-degree pool. Inside, the space is equipped with a heat lamp to keep the temperature at 80 degrees.
The 3 1/2-foot animal is the shelter's first alligator. Staff members initially expressed concerns about caring for him because no one had experience with aggressive reptiles.
“We definitely had to do our homework on how to care for him,” shelter relations coordinator Halley Taylor said. “We got online, did our research, called local pets stores, asked for advice on dietary needs and general care information, and rolled with it. We really did hit the ground running.”
Alligators typically live in slow-moving, freshwater bodies of water and need the sun and heat to survive. American alligators are common in Florida and other parts of the Southeast, from the Carolinas to Texas.
When not in captivity, they live about 35 to 50 years and feed on snails, frogs, insects, fish and small mammals, eaten whole.
The average adult weighs 800 pounds and stretches 13 feet from tail to snout, but it can grow to more than 1,000 pounds.
Julie Schultz, kennel manager for the shelter, is the only person who transports the alligator between his two habitats.
“Ideally we would never pick him up, but we’ve got to,” she said. “When I’m not here, someone has to put him out, so they just bite the bullet and bring him out.”
Schultz feeds him raw chicken breasts daily — one cutlet in the morning and one at night.
“He really enjoys chicken fingers,” Taylor said.
After his daily meal, Schultz carries Allygator from his heat lamp to the outside pen.
With bare hands, she scoops up the dark-green alligator and places him carefully in a gray case. She coos with praise when the gator gives her no trouble.
“It’s amazing how he’s adapted to being completely uprooted from his bathtub and moving to the shelter,” Taylor said. “Hopefully it will be as positive when he moves on to his next home.”
Despite initial concern about the shelter's unusual visitor, some staff members have expressed their excitement at the addition of an alligator to the facility.
"It's definitely been exciting to see his personality that he has expressed to staff members (whom) he enjoys," Taylor said.
For the most part, the staff has adapted to Allygator's needs, though there are some hesitations regarding his continued stay.
“I have been fearful for our staff members,” said Heather Duren Stubbs, the shelter's operations coordinator. “It would be like having a lion here. No, we’re not equipped to have that kind of animal here, and that’s exactly why they have the laws they have set in place.”
According to a Boone County ordinance, no individual may possess an exotic animal without the proper license or permit, as determined by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the United States Department of Agriculture or other such agencies.
Allygator's future home is uncertain, though the reptile seems content with his current lifestyle.
“He definitely is a happy, fat gator,” Schultz said.