COLUMBIA — Popping its head out of water, only to disappear a few minutes later, a 2-foot-long American alligator teased conservation department officials Friday in what looked like a game of hide and seek.
A local fisherman told the Missouri Department of Conservation on Wednesday that he had spotted the alligator at MU’s South Farm Lake, just off U.S. 63 south of Columbia. The lake, which is open to the public, is managed by the conservation department.
“We speculate that the alligator was somebody’s pet,” said Craig Gemming, Fisheries Management Biologist for the department. “They’re not native to Missouri, and they won’t be able to survive.”
Conservation department officials failed to capture the alligator Thursday.
“It is so small,” Gemming said. “We’re having difficulty catching it.”
The American Alligator, a native to the southeast portion of the U.S., weighed in at 2 pounds and measured a little over 2 feet long. Full-grown alligators can weigh up to 600 pounds and grow up to 18 feet long.
“It wouldn’t hurt anybody,” Gemming said.
Scott Voney, Kevin Hempen and Randy White, all of the conservation department, spent nearly four hours Friday working to catch the alligator.
The officials first used a weighted gill net to corner the reptile. But when the its head popped up outside of the net, it seemed as if it had outsmarted the trappers.
“I’m not sure, but I think I heard him laughing when he came up,” said Voney of the elusive alligator.
For the next attempt, Hempen paddled back out and added a second net outside the first one. Once the nets were in place, the trappers pulled them closer to shore, while watching where the gator would surface next. When the nets were about 5 to 10 feet apart, Hempen waded through the middle, trying to stir the alligator.
Hempen, shoulder-deep in water, wasn’t concerned even when he realized the alligator was eye level with him.
“Hey Randy, you want to get my snorkel?” Hempen asked.
Billy Ware and Mike Hanauer were fishing when they noticed the commotion.
“This is more exciting than fishing,” Ware said.
“Even if it’s not caught today, it won’t stop me from coming here to fish,” Hanauer said.
But the trappers wouldn’t need another day.
Before conservation officials could try a third net, they found the alligator tangled and dead in the first one. Department officials said the alligator had drowned during the capture.
Had the alligator been alive, the conservation department planned to give it to a zoo or see if MU would have a use for it.
“We encourage people who purchase exotic pets not to release them into the wild,” Gemming said. “If they survive, they can compete with native species and over populate, given the right conditions.”
For these reasons, the conservation department makes the following recommendations for people who purchase exotic pets only to find they don’t want them:
- See if the pet store will buy the pet back.
- Offer to donate the pet to a zoo.
- humanely euthanize the pet.
Although euthanization sounds harsh, it’s better than the animal experiencing a prolonged, agonizing death, as the alligator would have this winter, Gemming said.
“People shouldn’t have exotic pets anyway,” Hanauer said.
After they caught the alligator, Voney and White joked that Hempen deserved this year’s Steve Irwin award.
Irwin is the late “Crocodile Hunter” made famous by his Discovery Channel television show.