- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2013

Looking for more bite than bark?

Drug dealers, long associated with aggressive dogs like pit bulls, are of late opting for a more cold-blooded accomplice to protect their business interests: the alligator.

The scaly version of the guard dog isn’t showing up just in drug dens near its native Southern swamplands, police are finding the reptiles in raids from Oakland to Philadelphia.

Last month, during a raid in Baltimore, police found three small alligators while searching the apartment of a suspected dealer. That case was among a smattering of reports linking alligator ownership to drug dealers seeking to guard their stashes or simply send a message.

Ruthless and intimidating predators, alligators embody characteristics that might be attractive to people looking to mimic the pop-culture portrayals of big-time drug dealers.

“I think a lot of this comes back to the desire to own something exotic as well as the power of controlling a fierce animal. By keeping it in your control, you are saying something about yourself as an individual,” said Jeffrey Hyson, a professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia who specializes in the history of zoos. “I would imagine for some people who have stuff they’d like to guard, a pit bull is great but a gator is even better.”

‘It kept hissing’

An anonymous tip led a team of tactical officers from the Anne Arundel County Police Department to a trailer home in Jessup, Md., in search of drugs one early morning in November 2012. What they encountered inside the home was out of the ordinary in a big, angry way.

A 3-foot American alligator in a walk-in closet snapped and hissed at officers as they forced their way through a bedroom door.

“My first thought was we’re definitely not touching it,” said a police detective who was part of the raid. “It kept hissing, like, ‘Leave me alone.’”

The door to the closet in which the alligator was contained had been removed and replaced with a small plywood barrier. Inside was a kiddie pool that served as makeshift refuge for the alligator, which the owner had dubbed “Little G.” Just feet away from the angry gator, officers found 5 ounces of marijuana, police said.

“I don’t know if it was guarding the drugs. The owner said it was his pet,” said the detective, who agreed to speak on the condition that he not be named because he works undercover. “Definitely if someone saw that they’d think twice about doing something to that guy.”

Little G’s owner, Michael Golden, disputed the notion that he had the 4-year-old alligator to serve as a guard.

“That’s crazy. You can’t train them,” said Mr. Golden, 33. “They are not very wise animals. The only time they will listen to you or follow you is if they are hungry and you are holding food.”

Mr. Golden, who pleaded guilty to possession charges and served 10 days in jail, said he took over care for Little G from a friend who moved out of state.

“It was more or less a hobby kind of thing,” he said, adding that as long as Little G was fed he could handle her safely.

Possession of alligators and other crocodilians is illegal in Maryland — as in other states such as Virginia, California and Georgia — so police called county animal control officers to the home to take custody of Little G.

“We show up as quickly as we can to assist police. They aren’t as experienced in dealing with these exotic animals,” said Robin Catlett, an administrator with Anne Arundel Animal Control. “Once we obtain legal custody of it, we work to find a rescue that can take the animal.”

In Little G’s case, that rescue turned out to be Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Thurmont, Md., which is home to an “alligator bayou” display.

Mr. Golden, who said he tried to follow up on the whereabouts of the alligator, was uncertain whether Little G was still at the preserve and hasn’t seen her since the day she was seized.

As extraordinary an experience as Little G’s seizure was for police, animal control officers have to be prepared for such encounters. Since 2006, Anne Arundel County animal control officers have handled 13 “crocodilians” — either alligators or caimans — though Little G was the only one taken into custody through a police raid.

“It’s not as rare as you would think it would be,” Ms. Catlett said.

A history of intimidation

The curious phenomenon of drug dealers owning alligators could be faddish or coincidental, but it has some logic behind it, wildlife researchers say.

“The predominate way people think of alligators is as this fierce man-eating predator,” said Mark Barrow, chairman of Virginia Tech’s history department who is studying the cultural history of the American alligator. “I’m not terribly surprised that some folks may want to have these things to be cool.”

Imagery from the slavery-era South includes depictions of blacks being attacked or eaten by alligators, perhaps as part of a campaign to discourage slaves from attempting escapes through the surrounding swamplands, Mr. Barrow said.

“There is a rich history of intimidation, which is I think part of what’s going on with that,” he said.

Scott Giacoppo, vice president of the Washington Humane Society, said criminals have long kept pets for protection or intimidation.

“It is a really common thing for drug dealers to have animals for smuggling and so forth,” he said.

Mr. Giacoppo recalled that, as a special state police officer investigating animal cruelty in Boston in the early 1990s, young street dealers would hide vials of crack cocaine beneath the collars of their dogs.

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.

Images of alligators in popular culture — including a pair of leashed alligators featured on the cover of singer Beyonce’s 2006 “Ring the Alarm” album and more recent television shows such as “Gator Boys” depicting life as an alligator trapper — might have renewed interest in the animals. But zoologists generally believe the ease with which exotic reptiles can be acquired online is the biggest factor in their popularity.

“It’s really one of the driving causes of the exotic animal trend,” Mr. Fink said.

A search online quickly nets offers of baby alligators for as little as $89.

The baby gators grow quickly and often surpass their owners’ ability to care for them, said Christina Obrecht, who operates an alligator sanctuary in Pennsylvania that takes in rescued animals.

In the past two years, Ms. Obrecht has rescued 54 alligators, often picking them up from owners looking to relinquish their care. With room for only 11 alligators at her sanctuary, she is often tasked with finding permanent homes for the reptiles, which has become increasingly difficult.

“They are very readily available and cheap. That’s the problem,” she said, noting that it’s legal to sell alligators in Pennsylvania and that several large-scale reptile shows regularly do.

Though they may be cute and low-maintenance when they are small, professionals warn, the reptiles become increasingly difficult to care for as they grow and pose more danger to those around them — not just intruders.

“The chances of you getting hurt by it are much greater than it hurting someone else,” Mr. Fink said.

Aside from posing dangers to their owners and being difficult to care for, there’s perhaps another key reason why alligators are ill-suited for the role of a drug dealer’s protector: None of these gators alerted its owner that police were about to knock on the door.