Alligator fever spread. Etna Print Circus started selling bright green t-shirts emblazoned with “Summer of the Gators.” In July, artists Dave English and Will Simmons released a music video for their song “Alligators of Pittsburgh” in which an alligator’s head attached to a doll’s body plays the piano. Even The Wall Street Journal wrote about Pittsburgh’s alligators.
If you narrow Google search results for “Pittsburgh Alligator” to any date before May 18, 2019, it shows sporadic results spanning a decade. Without the filter, there are dozens of results from both local and national news, aghast and perplexed.
Generally, the closest someone in Pittsburgh should be able to get to an alligator is at the zoo (or at Strip District Meats, where alligator tail and smoked alligator andouille sausage are sold). But because of lackadaisical alligator sale laws in Pennsylvania, there’s been an uptick in sales and subsequent abandonment, of alligators, who get picked up by Animal Control, taken to Humane Animal Rescue, transferred to a zoo in New Jersey, and eventually end up at a sanctuary in Florida.
The natural habitat of the American Alligator is the American South — no farther north than North Carolina, and as far south as the Rio Grande river in Texas. As a full-grown adult, they range in average size from 8-11 feet (but can get up to 15 feet) and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. They make guttural mating calls that sound like a boat motor or a cartoon dragon. They are carnivores, and one of the largest reptiles in America. In the wild, they can live to be 50 years old.
The needs of alligators in a place like Pittsburgh are great. In order for someone in Pittsburgh to create an adequate environment to house an alligator, they would need a large amount of space — both outdoor, and indoor for the winter — a large and continuous supply of meat, and to have their life planned out enough in advance to know that they can care for it for the next 50 or so years.
Sarah Shively, director of admissions and relocations at Humane Animal Rescue, says their greatest concern as a rescue organization is how, where, and why people keep acquiring these alligators and releasing them. “I think here it's just kind of disbelief as to why people continue to purchase them and how easy they are for an inexperienced person to purchase,” says Shively. “It's kind of frustrating for us in the rescue and shelter community, because it's really not fair for these animals to be kept in some of the conditions that they're being kept in. They deserve big enclosures where they can stretch and get what they need.”
Laws on exotic animal ownership are more relaxed in Pennsylvania than other states, like Maryland, where it is illegal to possess alligators as pets, as well as wild cats, primates, and venomous reptiles. Pennsylvania law defines “exotic wildlife” as including but not limited to “all bears, coyotes, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, cougars, wolves and any crossbreed of these animals which have similar characteristics in appearance or features.” Ownership of exotic wildlife requires a permit from the Game Commission. Alligators are not specifically listed as exotic wildlife and there are no restrictions on their sale in Pennsylvania, besides the permit.
Shively says she thinks the alligator issue will continue until there are stricter laws, or laws that ban them entirely. In June, Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris (D-North Side) said she is working on legislation that would regulate exotic animal sales (including alligators) in the city.
On June 11, 32 animals were removed from the home of a man in Beechview, after a five-foot alligator he owned escaped and was found wandering around the neighborhood. More alligators, pythons, iguanas, and other exotic animals were confiscated from the home, which police determined was unsuitable for the animals.
“If they're going to be legal, we need to make sure that those getting them are knowledgeable, that they're not our roaming the streets,” says Shively. “I think those getting them should be doing their research. But also [that] those selling them are doing their due diligence and properly placing the animal with someone.”
People who purchase alligators might do so from a reptile show or expo (and of course, it’s always possible that people buy them illegally). Amanda South of the Pittsburgh Reptile Show & Sale, says the monthly event in Cheswick doesn’t sell alligators but does allow adoptions, giving a place for anyone who owns an alligator but cannot care for it to surrender and re-home it. In order for someone to adopt an alligator at the Reptile Show, they must be over 21, own a home, and sign a waiver that explains care, and stipulates that if they cannot care for it, they will bring it back.
“At reptile expos, we all do our best to educate animal owners and we always have an open-door policy on any animal someone owns,” South says, noting that they have re-homed over a dozen alligators in the past five years.
While the Humane Animal Rescue will house the alligators brought to them by Animal Control, they deal mostly with dogs, cats, and other common domestic animals. Their facilities and staff are not built to handle an alligator, let alone seven. So once they have the gators, they start working on transferring them to a sanctuary that is better equipped. In the most recent gator transfer, the alligators were first transported to Cape May County Park & Zoo in New Jersey, where they waited to be picked up by Croc Encounters, a conservation and education facility for alligators, crocodiles, and other animals in Tampa, Fla.
Jon Paner, one of the managers of Croc Encounters, says the facility takes in alligators that are found loose or surrendered by pet owners. “There's not a lot of places that take alligators because alligators have really, essentially, no value,” he says. “It's hard to find homes for them, but that's what we do.”
As for how the Pittsburgh gators are doing, Paner says they arrived in generally decent health and have been acclimating to their new home with no major problems. The facility has been too busy to name them, but is still open to it because of their unique history.
Florida is full of alligators, but only a few are from Pittsburgh.