Leads on gator’s release being followed

PORT MATILDA – A 5-foot-long alligator, discovered this week in the decidedly unnatural habitat of Huntingdon County, is relaxing in a Port Matilda wildlife refuge while investigators follow leads pointing to its illegal release, authorities said Wednesday.

The alligator – found and apprehended Sunday by young fishermen near Shade Gap – remains nameless, its age and sex unclear, said Robyn Graboski, director of Centre Wildlife Care. Graboski’s refuge took in the out-of-place reptile Tuesday after a request from the state Fish and Boat Commission, she said.

“I haven’t fed it anything yet,” Graboski said. “We’re just getting it comfortable.”

The creature resides in an 8-by-10-foot enclosure, fenced off with wire and containing a water tub and a few rocks.

Graboski’s refuge has hosted non-Pennsylvanian lizards and reptiles, including giant snakes and tortoises, she said. But alligators are a rarity, especially those that have grown as large as the Shade Gap specimen.

“This is the first 5-foot alligator we’ve had,” she said. Graboski said the “mild-mannered” reptile was likely a domestic pet before its escape or release.

While the American alligator and its similar neighbor, the caiman, live naturally only in southern states and in Latin America, tourists and pet owners in recent years have taken the creatures north with increasing frequency, said Fish and Boat Commission Capt. Alan Robinson, who dealt with the Huntingdon County gator.

When the cute babies grow into human-sized adults, their owners often abandon them or seek them new homes at zoos.

“Statewide, we run into this probably at least a dozen times a year,” Robinson said.

Pennsylvania doesn’t regulate alligator ownership, according to the Fish and Boat Commission website, but state policy explicitly prohibits their release into the wild. Despite warnings that non-native species can wreak havoc on the Pennsylvania ecosystem, alligator releases are common in news reports across the state.

The cool northern climate prevents the cold-blooded creatures from breeding, according to a Pennsylvania Biological Survey report. While many die in cold winter weather, some can survive in underground hiding places, Penn State University Evolutionary Biologist Blair Hedges said.

“It’s mostly a spring, summer phenomenon,” Hedges said. “They’re not going to make it unless they find a sewer or something.”

Graboski said she’s confident that she can find a home for her new guest before winter arrives. Many abandoned alligators recovered by state officials end up in zoos and educational settings, Robinson noted.

In the mean time, state authorities are in search of the alligator’s former owner, who can be charged with a misdemeanor if he intentionally released the creature, Robinson said.

“We have some leads we’re looking into right now,” he said. “I’m very confident we’ll close this.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.