Photos courtesy of the author
For $94.99 you can order a live baby alligator from Backwater Reptiles, an online store located in Rocklin, California, according to the Better Business Bureau. Amos Cooper, who oversees the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's alligator program in Texas, told me, “You have to be an alligator farmer [to own one]—registered or else affiliated with some kind of research program.” Yet Backwater Reptiles sells animals to anyone and features glowing reviews from satisfied customers with names like “Angela Lance.”
“Lillygator lets everyone handle her,” Lance gushes in her review. “She eats fantastic, knows her name, and is doing great both on leash training and being trained to respond to a dog clicker.”
If you’re looking for a more affordable alternative, your safest bet is a man I met in Florida while I was killing hogs. He asked me not to share his name, so let's call him Bob.
“You want a baby?” Bob asked gamely when I called him. “How often do you come to Florida? I know where a bunch of ‘em are.”
He explained that if it’s the right time of year, and you know the right guy, you can take home a baby alligator for free. Well, for zero financial cost. Bob told me baby alligators make terrible pets.
“They bite you right out of the egg,” he said. “They never tame down. They always bite.”
I paused, momentarily distracted by Google Images of marmosets, which are not only cuddlier than alligators, but also, apparently, inspire true love. Unfortunately, they can cost up to $3,000.
“You still interested [in buying a baby alligator]?” Bob asked after a pause.
“I might be,” I admitted. Owning an alligator sounded terrifying, but the idea of taming a monster intrigued me. Like most self-proclaimed animal lovers, I suffer from what I call the Snow White Effect (SWE): the dangerous misconception that if a predator stands close to you without eating you, you are magical. Zoos depress me, and despite Bob’s invitation, I wasn’t planning to go back to Okeechobee, Florida, any time soon. (The last time I went there, I departed shaking and covered in blood). But I have always been attracted to snake charmers because they’ve forged a special bond with otherwise untamable beasts. I assume they must be wizards or, at the very least, exceptional. If left to my own devices, I’m the sort of person who would die in the woods with “friends” that are actually bears, like the guy in Grizzly Man.
The Snow White Effect, in full effect
According to a recent National Geographic article, “Privately owning exotic animals is currently permitted in a handful of states with essentially no restrictions: You must have a license to own a dog, but you are free to purchase a lion or baboon and keep it as a pet.” The article goes on to state that such ownership carries obvious risks: “In Texas a four-year-old [was] mauled by a mountain lion his aunt kept as a pet, in Connecticut a 55-year-old woman’s face [was] permanently disfigured by her friend’s lifelong pet chimpanzee, in Ohio an 80-year-old man [was] attacked by a 200-pound kangaroo, in Nebraska a 34-year-old man [was] strangled to death by his pet snake.”
The obvious risk of owning a bloodthirsty hatchling—a cute animal that could one day grow up to be 14-feet long—might be part of the reason that an employee of another online retailer, Voracious Reptiles, agreed to speak to me on the phone but refused to give me his name.
“You can sell to anybody out of state,” he insisted. “Baby alligators aren’t unlawful to sell or to have, no ma’am, that’s just not true.”
“Do they get along with other pets?” I asked.
“What kinds of pets?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” I allowed myself to engage in some wishful thinking. “A dog?”
“Keep them away from the dog,” he said grimly.
My phone calls to other exotic animal salespeople were equally disheartening. I called Backwater Reptiles to ask about their return policy, but they never called back, which makes sense considering the Better Business Bureau gave them a B+ rating. (They have received two negative reviews because their animals were sick or dead when they arrived at customers' homes.)
At this point the Snow White Effect was in full swing, so I called up Diane Davis, an employee at Trophy Gators, a taxidermy place in Florida. Davis comes in contact with many alligator wranglers, and I assumed she could tell me more about the baby alligator peddlers I’d since found on Hoobly.com, a website that lets users post free classified ads.
“I don’t really use the computer, honey,” Davis said. “But keep in mind that alligators don’t love anyone. They eat your hands off.”
“Would you show me where to get a little one?” I asked Davis.
“What you’re asking is illegal,” Davis snapped. “If you want a baby one so [sic] bad, why don’t you go buy a little head at the filling station down the street? And if that [sic] don’t satisfy you, see a doctor.”
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