A state environment official speaks about an alligator that was recently surrendered to Suffolk officials and why it is not safe or legal to own one.  Credit: Morgan Campbell

A five-foot-long American alligator, which had been illegally kept by a couple in the Town of Islip, will be sent to a wildlife sanctuary after its owners turned the reptile over to the Suffolk County SPCA.

The unidentified couple surrendered the 9-year-old gator named Zachary on Wednesday after a neighbor filed a complaint. 

They had kept the reptile harnessed in a large glass case similar to a fish tank, with a diet of goldfish and hot dogs, officials said.

With members of the news media looking on Thursday, two Department of Environmental Conservation agents and an SPCA official attempted to take Zachary out of a plastic crate but the alligator, its mouth taped shut and tail whipping violently, refused to comply. Zachary stayed in the crate.

"They should be out in the wild," DEC Capt. Thomas Gadomski said of alligators during a news conference in Smithtown.

"So our message is, 'don't own these,' " he said. "There's plenty of cats and dogs and fish and all kinds of other pets that are much easier to take care of and obviously much safer and healthier for the wildlife itself."

American alligators are native to the Southeastern United States, can live in the wild for 50 years and can grow to between 8 and 11 feet long by adulthood, typically about 10 to 12 years of age, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

"After they are four feet long, alligators are safe from predators," the Smithsonian's website says, "except humans and occasionally other alligators."

In New York State, endangering the public with a wild animal is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Nationwide, laws on alligator ownership vary. While Michigan allows ownership, Detroit bans it and New Mexico allows ownership with a permit, according to a 2020 article in National Geographic magazine.

DEC agents received an anonymous complaint several weeks ago that an alligator was being kept inside an Islip Town home, Gadomski said.

The homeowners originally denied any knowledge of the alligator. But when agents threatened to obtain a search warrant and press civil and criminal penalties, the couple voluntarily turned Zachary over as part of the SPCA's 2015 amnesty program, which allows residents to voluntarily surrender illegally owned animals without penalties.

"It's better to call us now and make arrangements to voluntarily surrender it than it is for us to come knock on your door and get it that way," Gadomski said. "It'll be more cost-effective for you."

The Islip couple, who will not face criminal charges, had the reptile without a permit to own it, Gadomski said. They purchased the alligator from an out-of-state seller, he said, and an investigation into that person's identity is ongoing.

Suffolk SPCA Chief Roy Gross said Zachary is the second-largest alligator ever recovered on Long Island, behind a six-footer found in a Medford backyard in 2016.

In 2012, a total of 20 alligators were recovered on Long Island, including on the Long Island Expressway, a playground, a Wading River golf course, outside a Baldwin supermarket and on the steps of an Applebee's in Shirley, Gross said.

"That is not a true companion," Gross said of Zachary. "This is extremely dangerous. It could be a killing machine."

Through the amnesty program, the SPCA has recovered crocodiles, monkeys, a cougar and black bear, a pair of leopards, an alligator snapping turtle left at the mouth of the Nissequogue River, an anaconda and a venomous ornate baboon spider.

"These are very, very dangerous animals," Gross said. "They can inflict  serious injuries or even death. … Besides being illegal, they're extremely dangerous. Very, very dangerous and unpredictable. So stick to your furry friends. Like dogs and cats."

The alligator ordeal comes during an unusually wild summer for Long Island animals. 

Last week, an elusive Eurasian lynx — seen across Central Islip for three days — was finally captured. Days earlier, a 70-year-old Albertson woman was mauled to death by a pit bull.

And Long Islanders have been facing a constant wave of shark sightings — and a handful of bites from the sea predators — at South Shore beaches all summer.

With Matthew Chayes

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