Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Alligators haven’t been seen in the sewers of New York for quite a while, but several of the scaly reptiles have been spotted, caught or killed in the waterways of Maryland and Virginia this month.

A 4-foot-long alligator was killed Friday in a wooded area near Chesapeake, Va. Meanwhile, Richmond-area residents have been keeping an eye out for a 3-foot-long alligator seen last week in Falling Creek Reservoir.

In Western Maryland, children caught an 8-inch baby alligator and a 13-inch baby alligator late last month and early this month along the Potomac River in Williamsport, Md., across the border from West Virginia.

“Obviously, alligators don’t belong up here,” said Dan Perry, spokesman for the Wildlife Services Program of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “It’s too far north.”

Virginia has no natural, breeding alligators. The closest population is in mainland Dare County, N.C., just west of Manteo.

Animal-control officers determined that Chesapeake’s alligator showed characteristics of a species that is known to live as close as South Carolina.

Some are alarmed by the recent sightings, but most dismiss the alligators as rejected pets.

“People sometimes go down South and pick up these things as pets and then decide maybe it’s not such a good idea to keep an animal that can grow up to 10 feet long and eat you,” said Jim Harding, a professor of zoology and herpetology at Michigan State University.

The uptick in sightings could be attributed to the beginning of alligator breeding season, which starts in late May.

Mr. Harding said alligators could survive in the colder climates of Virginia and Maryland, noting historical data that suggests some alligators once lived in Virginia’s southern swamps.

“Like most reptiles, their body is dependent on their surroundings, so they are certainly not happy when it gets that cold. But they can handle it,” Mr. Harding said. “Alligators are fairly tough animals. If they got up into [Virginia and Maryland], there is probably not much to keep them from surviving.”

For example, the Colorado Gator Farm is thriving near Alamosa, nestled in ski country about 40 miles north of the New Mexico border.

The farm boasts dozens of alligators that owner Erwin Young brought to the region in 1986 to help with his commercial fishing business. The alligators, which eat fish guts, have adapted to snow. They became a tourist attraction in 1993.

Alligators were once plentiful along the Atlantic Coast, but hunting prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1967 to classify them as an endangered species. Over the following decade, the alligator population boomed, and its status was changed to threatened species.

The alligator in the reservoir west of Richmond has eluded animal-control officers, who think it was released from captivity. The alligator, weighing 35 pounds to 40 pounds, has been seen twice since a man spotted it last week floating in the center of the reservoir.

Alice Berry, Chesterfield County’s manager of animal control, said the alligator probably is not dangerous unless intercepted or attacked. It was feeding on fish in the large reservoir.

“They’ve been no trouble before,” Ms. Berry said. “Alligators don’t live in this habitat up here.”

Mr. Perry of the Wildlife Services Program is awaiting a request from local and state officials to capture the alligator, probably to transport it to a warmer climate south of Virginia.

Alligator sightings have excited some residents.

Two West Virginia boys fishing on the Potomac near Williamsport caught an 8-inch alligator and named it Boomer. He now is delighting children in an educational exhibit at the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo north of Frederick, Md.

Wildlife officials did not know what became of the 13-inch-long alligator caught in those same waters. A 5-year-old boy caught it by hand May 1 while fishing with his family in the Riverbottom Park in Williamsport.

Virginia and Maryland laws prohibit the importation of alligators, or their close cousin crocodiles, for sale or exchange as household pets.

Several Southeastern states have farms where alligators are raised for their hides and meat.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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