Want to raise an alligator in New York? Bring $125 to Hamburg, Pennsylvania on Oct. 20

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The American Alligator (mississippiensis). ()
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Jed Lipinski

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On Monday morning, while executing a search warrant on the home of a man and a woman in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the police turned up two loaded handguns, a pair of brass knuckles, and a cache of pills and marijuana, the Daily News reported.

They also found a 3-foot alligator, which is illegal to possess in New York, and which the couple was keeping as a pet.

It’s been less than a month since the police recovered two alligators—plus two bearded dragons, a boa constrictor, a scorpion, a gecko, and a tarantula—from a fifth-floor apartment in Crown Heights.

How do New Yorkers get their hands on an alligator?

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“Years ago, I heard of people driving down to Florida and picking up alligators for sale on the side of the road, then driving them back up,” said Bob Scheben, the owner of Repxotica in West Islip, New York. “The alternate way was to just find some knucklehead who had one. Like, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ And there’s a transference.”

Today, though, the proliferation of reptile trade shows has made it easier for New Yorkers to acquire an underpriced alligator closer to home.

“You can buy an 8- to 10-inch alligator for about $100 or $125 at any of the reptile shows in Pennsylvania,” said Lewis Gaudio, who has owned the Exotic Pet Warehouse in Yonkers for 30 years. “I mean, you can’t sell primates in New York either, but people still have monkeys at their place.”

“It’s like drugs,” Gaudio added. “People find ways to get ‘em.”

One of the most popular reptile shows in the mid-Atlantic region is The Hamburg Reptile Show in Pennsylvania, where the sale and possession of alligators is legal, with a permit. The show takes place twice a month. The next one happens on Oct. 20. “Venomous animals will be allowed,” the website notes. (Last year, one state senator tried to draft a bill to make sales of alligators illegal in Pennsylvania.)

As to why someone would want an alligator as a pet, Gaudio had a few ideas.

“A lot of people just like to handle them,” he said. “Or they like to have something no one else has. Part of it is probably ego.”

Pet alligators, of course, pose a problem for the limited square footage of most New York City residences. The reptiles grow rapidly, a couple of inches per month, Gaudio said.

“You can’t stop the growth of a regular-sized alligator,” Gaudio said.

But even you live in a big house in a state where alligators are legal, choosing to own an alligator as a pet is not something to undertake lightly.

“You have to have a plan, a vision,” said Jim Nesci, a reptile educator and conservationist in Illinois know in part for his work with the late Steve Irwin, aka The Crocodile Hunter. “Most gators can grow to be over 14-feet in length and 1,000 pounds. They live to be 35 to 50 years old. That’s a serious commitment! You have to be truly involved, and want to learn, and have a facility to accommodate the animal.”

Many alligator owners in Illinois have fallen short of those criteria. The state recently stopped issuing permits to possess alligators because people were finding them in surrounding lakes, rivers and streams, Nesci said.

Nesci added that his friend, a member of the Chicago Herpetological Society who lives near Midway International Airport, keeps over 100 confiscated or unwanted alligators “in his basement” at any one time. He ships the displaced pets to Alligator Adventure, the so-called “Reptile Capital of the World,” in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where alligators are indigenous.

But for those who are capable of both raising and caring for alligators, Nesci said, owning one can be a profoundly rewarding experience.

“They’re amazing creatures,” he said. “They’ve seen the dinosaurs come and go. A lot of people call them primitive. But I say: Prehistoric, yes. Primitive, no. Alligators have some of the most sophisticated moms on the planet. They open the eggs when the babies make sounds, and they carry them down to the water and defend them for months. That’s not a primitive beast. That’s a sophisticated mom.”