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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Alligators, bears and cougars: inside Long Island’s exotic pet trade

A small alligator held near a swamp. Jungle Bob’s Reptile World in Selden, New York has a license to take care of exotic animals such as Wally, a 3-foot alligator once illegally owned by a Long Island resident. PUBLIC DOMAIN

The walls of Jungle Bob’s Reptile World in Selden, New York are decked with reptiles in early December. Peach-throat monitors, green tree pythons and Pacman frogs color the store. Near the cash register, in a large tank with a “NOT FOR SALE” sign, one reptile’s eyes and snout rest above water.

“He came to us as a rescue,” Dylan Smith, employee and son of store founder Bob Smith, said.

Walley is a 3-foot alligator that was once illegally owned by a resident.

“When we went to pick him up he was running around freely in a basement out of the water with no heat, and was extremely skinny and coated in dust,” Smith said.

While the reptile and aquarium retailer has a license to take care of Walley, most people do not. It is illegal to privately own members of the crocodilian family in New York State.

Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or SPCA, is no stranger to Long Island’s microcosm of illegal exotics.

“We have found alligators left in lakes, ponds, down at the beach…” Gross said. “One alligator was left in a container in front of Applebee’s restaurant in Shirley. Another was trotting down the expressway near exit 68.”

Last summer, Gross and his team recovered a 6-foot alligator from a Suffolk County resident’s backyard.

“One year, in a matter of one month, we found 20 alligators in Suffolk County,” Gross said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Because of the influx of illegal reptiles in Suffolk County, the SPCA worked with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to create an amnesty day for illicit exotics.

Similar to amnesty days for illegal weapons, owners who turn in their illegal pets face no penalties. However, if an illegal pet is found in a resident’s home or business, they can face a range of charges from heavy fines to imprisonment.

“There’s a reason why they’re illegal,” Gross said. “These aren’t the kind of pets you want to curl up and watch television with … you’re not going to sit and watch a movie with an alligator on your lap.”

Crocodiles aren’t the only animals subject to restrictions. All members of the felidae family except domestic cats and all members of the canidae family except domestic dogs, bears, non-human primates and venomous animals cannot be owned. That means that the Siberian tiger, hyena or the pygmy marmoset you may have seen circulating the internet is off the table this Christmas.

“[New York State laws] mostly cover species that get far too big for most to reasonably keep and would often become unwanted as adults or are just flat out dangerous,” Smith said. “In an ideal world I wish people proven to be responsible could own any species but it would be very difficult to prove or test that in reality.”

The SPCA’s amnesty program was originally focused on reptiles, but one year Gross received a call from a woman stating that she was going to turn in two monkeys. While the monkeys never showed up, this call prompted the SPCA to include mammals in its program as well.

“Sure enough we started getting cougars, marmosets, wolves … to name a few,” Gross said.

Long Island is not new to big cats. The island has had a history of pet cougars, leopards and ligers.

The animals often come from online sites, or states with looser exotic pet laws. Gross recalls meeting one Long Island resident who flew to Minnesota, rented a car and drove back to the island with an 11-pound bear cub. After a neighbor called the SPCA, the bear was seized.

“I asked him ‘What are you going to do when it gets 800 pounds?’ and he said ‘I’ll put it in a cage,’” Gross said.

“Don’t get me wrong, the bear was adorable,” Gross added. “I fed it with a milk bottle. But then it accidentally scratched up the vet and the vet’s arms looked like they were cut with razor blades. What happens when the [full-grown] bear takes a swipe at you?”

The SPCA has worked with a rescue organization in Massachusetts, the Long Island Aquarium and Long Island Game Farm to relocate the animals.

For the 2018 year, no alligators, large mammals or venomous reptiles were turned in at the amnesty event on Oct. 13. Only turtles and farm animals were among the dozen or so animals brought to the SPCA.

“Since we started the amnesty day, we made a major dent in the population of illegal mammals and reptiles [on Long Island],” Gross said. “Unless there’s a sudden influx, we don’t anticipate having another [amnesty day] for some time.”

For Long Islanders still interested in owning exotic pets, Smith says there are tons of legal and reasonable species to choose from. He recommends bearded dragons and ball pythons.

“These are both extremely docile species, [they] do not get overly large so they can be kept easily in a home, are easy to care for and are, at least in our case, one-hundred percent bred and born captively in the U.S. rather than taken from the wild,” Smith said.

Reptiles like Walley, however, can grow over 10 feet long and require enormous enclosures.

“While it would be very exciting to unwrap a baby alligator, they are a very poor and illegal idea for a Christmas present,” Smith said.

Once Walley outgrows his enclosure at Jungle Bob’s, the Smiths plan to send him to a sanctuary in Alabama where he can live outdoors and as close to being wild as he can.

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