Experts say new laws needed after Pittsburgh alligator encounters
It’s perfectly legal to own an alligator in Pennsylvania.
However, the permitting process for obtaining such a reptile may need to change, said Sarah Shively of Humane Animal Rescue in Pittsburgh.
“Unfortunately this is something that has been happening for years all over the state, and now we are seeing more and more stores and reptile shows selling them,” Shively told the Tribune-Review on Monday. “People can get them very easily for $150 at a reptile sale. There are no laws stopping them, and those laws really need to change because obviously alligators can really hurt people if not cared for properly.”
Three alligators have been found loose in Pittsburgh since May 18.
Shively is the associate director of admission and relocation for the Homewood shelter where the trio of alligators were temporarily housed. The gators departed Pittsburgh on Monday for the Cape May Zoo in New Jersey. From there, they will be taken to “Croc Encounters,” a wildlife park in Tampa, Fla.
Jesse Rothacker, president of Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary in Northern Lancaster County, said “just like gun expos, and computer expos, they have reptile expos with the best and worst vendors.”
He adds that state legislators haven’t properly addressed the ease with which someone can obtain an alligator.
“It’s not a voter issue. It’s legislative laziness is all it is,” Rothacker said. “We heard about a 17-year-old kid in Berks County outside of Philly who walked out of a reptile show with a four-foot alligator. His mom called us and was upset and wondered how we can get the people who sold my child an alligator in trouble, and then she learns that they didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not illegal to sell alligators to children in Pennsylvania.”
State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said through a spokeswoman that the potential issue is something “the Legislature could look at moving forward.”
Sara Smith, owner of Sara’s Pets in Squirrel Hill, has an alligator at her store that she rescued, but it’s not for sale.
“A woman called me because her 14-year-old son went to a reptile show and someone sold him an alligator. He hid it in his room under a dirty clothes pile for two months before she found it,” said Smith.
Smith now houses the animal in its own room equipped with a pond. She named the female alligator Mildred and said, like many of these reptiles, she is intelligent.
“I use her for education programs in schools, and she knows who mom is,” Smith said. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly. She’s very sweet, all the kids touch her and she’s never done anything wrong.”
Smith agrees with other experts that people who do not have expertise when it comes to alligators, or the ability to properly care for them, should not be allowed to own them.
“In this climate, it is not humane or responsible for an average person to own an alligator,” Rothacker said. “Sometimes we don’t even see them. You can only imagine how many are in there swimming around and they just succumb once we reach December and January. They are not going to survive this far north. They freeze to death. That’s not really a humane way of treating animals.”
According to the city of Pittsburgh’s legal department, alligators could be considered “exotic wildlife” and while the definition does not mention alligators, it has “included but not limited to” language that could plausibly include alligators.
“Releasing such an animal into the wild or failing to secure the public from such release is punishable by summary offense,” according to the legal department.
The largest of the alligators found in Pittsburgh, a gator five to six feet long, is particularly unhappy, according to Shively.
“Imagine how stressed out they are,” she said. “These are wild animals, basically.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].