Similar scenarios have been reported in drug raids in which police found narcotics in proximity to the alligators.
“People will keep the drugs in bags and sink them into the [alligator’s] tank so they have to pull them out with strings,” said Adam Fink, a lead keeper responsible for reptiles at the Oakland Zoo, which took custody of an alligator and a caiman by way of police drug raids this year.
One of those seizures included the wildly popular case of “Mr. Teeth,” a 5-foot caiman found during a January drug raid in Castro Valley, Calif., that netted 34 pounds of marijuana.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which conducted the raid, said the owner kept the reptile to protect his drugs.
“People don’t go real close to a cage with a caiman in it,” sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. J.D. Nelson said.
Other recent seizures of alligators from suspected drug dens include:
• Two 5-foot alligators found purportedly guarding 15 marijuana plants in an Olympia, Wash., home in November 2012 when police responded to a report of gunshots.
• A 3-foot alligator turned up along with cocaine and marijuana during a February raid targeting a Latin Kings street gang member suspected in a shooting that injured a Chicago police officer.
• A caged alligator found in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, Pa., during the August 2011 arrest of a suspected drug dealer who kept the reptile in his living room to intimidate customers.
People who keep the animals also don’t always take the best care of them.
For Mr. Teeth — whose owner said he purchased the animal in 1996 to commemorate the death of rapper Tupac Shakur — the story ended badly. Suffering from malnutrition and pneumonia, the reptile died the day after he was transported to the Oakland Zoo.
On the rise?
The underground market for alligators has made it difficult to determine just how many are being kept as pets.
“This is a very poorly regulated industry. No one is really keeping track of who is buying these large reptiles,” said Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
Data from the American Veterinary Medical Association indicate that reptile ownership overall is on the rise. Ownership of snakes, lizards and turtles has increased over a five-year period ending last year. As has ownership of “other reptiles” — which rose from 69 animals per 1,000 households in 2007 to 365 reptiles per 1,000 households in 2012.