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FL Press: Daring alligator thief strikes twice

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Posted by W von Papinešu on March 05, 2003 at 20:58:09:

ST PETERSBURG TIMES (Florida) 05 March 03 Daring alligator thief strikes twice - Police think the same person took five baby gators in December and two in May 2001. (Chris Tisch)
Clearwater: Call it a gator caper.
Twice in the last two years, someone has scaled the fence of a Clearwater miniature golf course and snatched small alligators from the business' pond.
Police haven't arrested any suspects but believe the late-night gator thefts at Congo River Golf on U.S. 19 probably were committed by the same person.
"The circumstances are identical," said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor. "These people had the hubris to come back and do it again."
The stolen reptiles are American alligators, which can grow to 13 feet long. The gator-nappers took juveniles that are only 3 to 4 feet long, but they will grow. The thief stole two of them in May 2001 and took another five in December.
The gators were worth about $400 each at the time they were taken, making their total value near $3,000, said Gerald Hobby, owner of Gator Encounters, a Manatee County company that provides the reptiles to the golf course.
Perhaps as big a mystery as who took the gators is why. At such a young age, the reptiles are not big enough to harvest for their meat or skin. And anyone with even a passing knowledge of the gator industry knows getting caught with gators, without having a permit, is a crime.
Tim Gervan, the course general manger, said he thinks it might be kids out on a dare.
Hobby, who has been providing gators to exhibits in Florida for 10 years, said he thinks it might be a tourist wanting to brag to friends. He thinks whoever did it must know a little bit about handling the reptiles.
"My gut feeling is it's just a country boy who wanted to brag about something he did in Florida," Hobby said. "If he took it for bragging rights, he obviously told someone."
Police hope someone will come forward with information.
"We've exhausted most of our leads," said Clearwater police detective Joseph Ruhlin, who is investigating the crimes. "We have no idea what they plan to do with these."
Hobby, whose business provides gators to 13 exhibits in the state, said he has no competitors who would have a motive to snatch the reptiles. Hobby gets his reptiles from alligator farms.
He worries the gators might have been harmed, are dead or mistreated. That could result in animal cruelty charges.
Also of concern is that the gators could be held without proper precautions.
"They're too small to eat anybody, but they could bite you and hurt you," Ruhlin said.
The golf course keeps about 16 alligators in a fenced-off pond. Course managers maintain a safe environment for the gators with the help of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
When they get too big, Hobby swaps them out for younger gators. The larger ones are taken to other exhibits that can handle bigger reptiles.
"This is one of the few opportunities you get to interact with the alligators and feed them legally," Gervan said.
In captivity, gators live up to 90 years, Hobby said.
Hobby charges the golf course for food they buy for the gators. The golf course then sells the food to customers, who can put it on a fishing pole and feed the reptiles.
Golf course employees noticed the thefts when they saw sand footprints around the cage. A surveillance camera also captured a suspect walking on the property during the last theft.
The man seen in that video appears to be white, about 18-26 years old, 5-foot-10 inches tall with blond hair. He appears to be carrying a black suitcase.
Ruhlin said he knows of no other gator-nappings in the area. Hobby said the only one he ever encountered was in Daytona Beach, when a tourist was caught trying to steal one.
"They have to be pretty brave to get into an alligator pit," Hobby said. "It's a very unusual thing, somebody taking alligators."

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