CHICAGO -- According to Dr. Ellen Boyd, associate veterinarian at Animal House of Chicago, owning an alligator is tricky business. Forget the fact that it's illegal in Illinois; Boyd said the notorious reptiles need a swamp replica in someone's home, space to roam and potentially hundreds of dollars of veterinary care. Someone might purchase an alligator for $50, but that person is making a lifelong investment in the animal's well-being, and Boyd would caution individuals to be sure of what they're getting into.
The warning is particularly relevant in Chicago today. On Tuesday, an alligator was discovered in Humboldt Park Lagoon and had yet to be captured early Thursday. Because the species is decidedly non-native to Chicago, many have speculated about the alligator's origins. It's not the first time an alligator has been discovered in Chicago, and according to Boyd, the alligator might have been a pet. It's a familiar tale: A panicked owner gets in over his head and dumps the evidence, and Boyd said that it can happen with all types of pets. But Boyd, who used to work as a zoo veterinarian in Louisiana and grew up in Florida, is particularly well-acquainted with alligators, and they're no walk in any park, let alone Humboldt.
"The most common story is that people think it's pretty cool to get an alligator when they're small, and then as they grow it becomes very clear at some point that they can't handle having this pet," Boyd said. "Because either they're embarrassed or they don't know where to go, they just release them into the wild."
The damage to the native ecosystem, Boyd said, might be severe. Alligators can live off of small mammals and after recent efforts to clean up Chicago's river system, food is likely more abundant than ever. And an alligator is likely a public safety concern; a reptile accustomed to being fed by humans will be unafraid and more likely to approach parkgoers.
But the danger to the alligator can be equally great. Allison Sacerdote-Velat, co-chair of Midwest Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, wrote in an email that "reptiles in our region already face a number of threats from pathogens including Ranavirus and snake fungal disease." Dr. Susan Horton, a veterinarian at Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital worries about the current health of the alligator, as well as the potential damage to its lifespan.
"They're not made to be in Illinois," Horton said. "It's warm now, but they can't survive our winters and we don't know how (the alligator) was cared for by whoever released him. Probably not well if they just went ahead and dumped him. We've gotten in alligators before that were dumped that had horrible metabolic problems associated with not being fed properly."
While Horton said that owning an exotic pet such as an alligator is not necessarily a bad thing "if you're the right person for the right pet," Lisa Wathne, senior strategist of captive wildlife at the Humane Society of the United States, said the organization does not condone keeping any wild pets at all. An expert might understand an animal's needs -- for an alligator, this would include appropriate heat sources and specialized veterinary care -- but most experts, Wathne said, would put the needs of an exotic animal first.
"Anyone who's a specialist and who truly cares for these animals doesn't keep them as pets, because they realize how inappropriate it is for an animal," Wathne said. "The only place these animals should be in captivity is at accredited zoos or accredited sanctuaries."
While reptile sightings might appear to be a recent trend, Wathne said that the prevalence of social media has likely served to increase awareness of an always-present problem. She believes this is ultimately a positive thing, though it creates a stir. The end goal, she said, is to prohibit the ownership of wild animals altogether, and public awareness is a means to an end.
"In Chicago, it's not legal, but more than likely someone somewhere got this animal legally and then got it to this person in Chicago," she said. "It's pretty much an unregulated trade." Reptiles, unlike wild animals such as tigers, are not covered by the federal Animal Welfare Act, and no one is monitoring their trade. Owners are not inspected by agencies related to animal care, and the result is what Wathne described as a "free for all." And, she said, "the animals are suffering horribly for it."
Though owning an alligator is illegal for individuals in Illinois, Wathne said that there are always options to turn the alligator over that don't involve Humboldt Park. It is the responsibility of an owner to retain their pet long enough to research, but as long as the ultimate home for the alligator is an accredited sanctuary or zoo, there would likely be no legal repercussions. According to Horton, "there are lots of rescues out there for every exotic pet you can imagine," and Chicago Exotics often works to help individuals who find themselves unable to care for an exotic pet.
Unfortunately, for the alligator in Humboldt Park, it's too late for such thoughtful tactics, and no one can be sure of the health it will be in when it's captured. Boyd worries that the sighting could precede another, a problem she said stems from a lack of education about owning exotic animals as pets. A lack of knowledge, she said, can be dangerous.
"If there's one out there, then that probably means that more people have done it," Boyd said. "If you find one, that probably means you're behind the curve."
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