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Gators found in non-traditional northern waters

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 | 4:32 p.m. CDT; updated 10:49 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 23, 2010

CHICAGO — Two gators in the Chicago River. One strolling down a Massachusetts street. Another in bustling New York City. And that's just in the past few weeks.

From North Dakota to Indiana, alligators are showing up far from their traditional southern habitats — including a 3-footer captured Tuesday in the Chicago River.

But experts say it's not the latest sign of global warming. Instead the creatures almost certainly were pets that escaped or were dumped by their owners.

"People buy them as pets and then they get too big, and at some point they decide they just can't deal with it," said Kent Vliet, an alligator expert from the University of Florida who tracks media reports about the reptiles.

In the past three years, he said, there have been at least 100 instances of alligators showing up in more than 15 states where they're not native. North Carolina is the farthest north that alligators are found naturally, Vliet said.

A 3-foot-long, collar-wearing alligator was found Sunday strolling down a street in Brockton, Mass. On Monday, a 2-foot-long gator was spotted under a car in New York City. In fact, since spring, gators also have been found in Fargo, N.D., eastern Missouri, upstate New York, rural Indiana, Ohio and a Detroit suburb.

After being spotted by boaters on Sunday, Chicago's rogue gator drew scores of gawkers to the banks of the river. It peered from the water at the people staring back through binoculars, and swam away when a duck got too close.

"It's not scary," 8-year-old Caleb Berry said Monday. "It was a baby and it wasn't eating anything."

The alligator eluded capture and apparently ignored traps baited with raw chicken until Tuesday, when a volunteer from the Chicago Herpetological Society was able to snare it with a net. Three weeks ago, the volunteer captured a 2 1/2-foot gator in the same area.

Vliet said such small alligators don't pose much of a threat to humans — preferring to dine on fish, snails, crayfish, frogs and small snakes — though they probably would bite if handled.

"It's not like it's going to hunt you down," he said.

The greater risk is to the reptiles, which probably wouldn't survive long in northern climates, experts said.

"The animal is going to die a slow death," said Franklin Percival, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida who says alligators most often are abandoned when they reach 3 feet or so and "people wonder why they made the early decision" to buy them.

"Ecologically, it's not responsible and maybe ethically it is not a good idea, either," Percival said.

Alligators can be kept as pets in some states as long as the owner gets the proper permits, though some municipalities — like New York City — ban them outright. Illinois stopped issuing such permits three years ago because of problems with illegal ownership and people releasing unwanted pets, said Joe Kath, endangered species manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Cherie Travis, executive director of Chicago Animal Care and Control, said owning an alligator is a bad idea.

"No one in Illinois needs to own an alligator. Period," Travis said.


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