in the Living Room
self-proclaimed Alligator Man wants to educate the public
about his favorite endangered animals—
Lopez stands second in a three-deep line at Petco in Colonie.
Between his fingers he clutches two air-filled plastic bags.
In the first, at least 40 small goldfish collide with one
another and the sides of their soft container. The second
contains an equal number of crickets, which climb over one
another’s backs and slide down the smooth, sloped surface.
In the same hand, he balances a small blue package that bulges
over the body of a frozen mouse. It’s enough supplies to feed
a hungry alligator—actually, four of them.
Lopez, a 36-year-old Albany resident who refers to himself
as “José Lopez, the alligator man,” is a longtime lover of
the reptilian creatures and lawful owner of them for more
than a year. Inside a 120-gallon aquarium that he keeps on
a long table in his mother’s living room, he cages three 2-foot-long
caimans, reptiles that are in the same family as alligators.
Underneath, a smaller aquarium containing one foot-long American
alligator sits on the carpet.
Two of the caimans are positioned atop a partially submerged
faux-log snag at the center of the aquarium. The third rests
underneath the protrusions with his entire body immersed in
the 12 inches of water, with the exception of his beady eyes
and long snout. All three are motionless and unblinking.
two guys, right here,” Lopez says, pointing to the two on
top, “the male and the female, they’re very close. They were
born together. They’re brother and sister. They’re very close.
When one’s over here and the other’s over there, they make
a noise and they communicate to say, ‘I’m over here.’ ”
As Lopez approaches the table to point out the siblings, the
alligator below braces its body atop a smaller partially submerged
log and parts its upper and lower jaw. With its mouth wide
open, it lets out a steady hiss loud enough to hear from across
the room and slides backward as though it’s about to lunge.
worry about that,” Lopez instructs calmly. “He’s very aggressive.”
Lopez kneels down in front of the smaller aquarium and taps
his fingers on the top. The alligator, which Lopez’ niece
named Cabezon—a Spanish word meaning “big head”—lunges upward
instinctively until his snout crashes into the cross-hatch
lid and gravity pulls him back.
very aggressive, and I don’t know why. In the books it says
if he’s doing this that means he’s very healthy. That’s the
way you can tell. If he doesn’t do nothing and he just sits
there, something’s wrong with his health.”
Lacking a formal education about the reptiles he’s fascinated
by, Lopez has relied upon years of personal interest and research
to develop his knowledge base. “When I was small, I was interested
in watching animal programs and stuff like that,” says Lopez,
speaking rapidly. His Latino roots are evident not only in
his accent, but in the way he, at times, blends the two languages,
often substituting the Spanish word “pero” for “but.”
At his own apartment he has three dogs, and three pythons,
but he says crocodiles, alligators and caimans are not only
his favorite reptiles, but his favorite among all animal species.
Lopez says his mother doesn’t mind him keeping his caimans
and alligator at her house, and that most of his family has
been supportive. “The only problem I had was with my grandmother.
She says they’re going to eat me.”
opening his mouth over here,” Lopez says. Although it hasn’t
moved any other muscles, one of the caimans slowly spreads
its jaws, displaying a full mouth of pointed teeth. “He’s
getting hot. When they do that, it’s getting hot. They open
their mouth to cool down.”
The caiman’s throat pulsates for a few seconds, but its mouth
remains wide open even after the throbbing stops.
is my favorite species of animal,” Lopez says, still standing
in his mother’s living room. “I said, ‘Oh, it would be interesting
to find out how to get a license,’ and I checked it out.”
Indigenous wildlife as well as endangered and threatened species
are regulated by the New York State Department of Environmental
Conservation. “We do not issue licenses as pets for those
animals,” explains Lori O’Connell, a spokesperson with public
affairs and education division of the DEC. “We only license
for scientific, education, exhibition, propagation, and zoological
Lopez received his first license, for educational purposes,
about three years ago and purchased the brother-and-sister
pair of caimans for about $550. The pair arrived in March
2006, shipped overnight from Diamond Reptile Breeders of Florida.
Each caiman was packaged in a round plastic container on a
bed of moss to keep the environment moist. The container is
duct-taped closed and then wrapped in Styrofoam and newspaper
and placed in a box punctured for air holes.
In April 2006, Lopez received a third caiman from a separate
breeder, and then he acquired the alligator one month later.
All three caimans are a hybrid of the spectacled caiman, which
is common to South and Central Americas, and the Yacara caiman,
a less-familiar species found primarily in central South America.
At about 2 years old, each caiman is about 2 feet long and
weigh about 3 pounds. Lopez predicts they’ll reach nearly
3 feet by the end of the summer. By the time they’re full
grown, they could be 6 to 8 feet.
Before that happens, Lopez says he’ll have to make a decision
about whether or not to keep the animals. Already he’s thinking
about upgrading the caimans from the 120-gallon tank to a
150-gallon option, but by the end of next summer, even that
probably will be too small.
want to keep them,” he says. “I’m thinking of opening something
in Albany, like a room this big where I could have them for
education.” If that plan doesn’t work out, he says, Diamond
Reptile Breeders will take the animals back.
In addition to keeping the ones he already has, Lopez also
would like to expand his personal reptile zoo. He’d like to
purchase his first crocodile, the eggs for which are currently
incubating, and he’s working on applying for a license.
On the evening of May 9, Lopez is
sitting in Conference Room 2 on the second floor of the main
branch of the Albany Public Library. On one end of the table
is an aquarium containing his American alligator. On the other
end, several photographs, informational papers and a framed
copy of his license are displayed.
It is the fourth of a series of five alligator lectures Lopez
has scheduled at the library. Although few people stopped
in that evening, Lopez says that some of his most popular
showings have attracted more than a dozen people.
I’m in the library, I’m just hoping people see the sign,”
says Lopez, who posts green flyers to advertise the talks.
In the past, he has also displayed his caimans at the Boys
& Girls Club on Delaware Avenue in Albany and at New Visions,
the Slingerlands disabilities-
assistance center where Lopez works.
Lopez’ licensure is good for one year, at the end of which
he must reapply. To supplement his reapplication, Lopez keeps
documentation of each of his lectures as evidence of his intent
to keep his animals for educational purposes.
don’t let anybody touch them,” says Lopez, who also avoids
handling the caimans and his alligator—even though he says
he’s never been bit—unless he’s transporting them to take
on display or during weekly cleaning sessions.
have to be careful. I don’t mind getting bit because you can
get stitches. It’s not that, it’s that you don’t know what’s
in their teeth. I don’t want to take chances.”
That’s why he uses a fishing net to scoop out each animal
when he transports them from their main aquariums to the smaller
ones he uses when he transports them to lectures or during
aquarium cleanings, which are necessary on a weekly basis
because of the mess that results from feedings.
don’t have to eat every day,” Lopez says. In addition to the
60-or-so fish he puts into the tanks each week, Lopez feeds
the gator and caimans crickets as well as mice—two live medium-size
mice per caiman per week and smaller frozen mice for the alligator.
make a mess of the water,” he says of how the caimans feast
on the mice. “What they do is they go under water. They don’t
eat it quick, they just go under the water so the mouse drowns.
What they do is they put their head up and they eat the mice
head first, and they swallow it, head up. Their throat gets
bigger, and they swallow it. You see the tail [of the mouse].”
Lopez regularly stops by his mother’s apartment to check on
his alligator and caimans and monitor their eating habits.
He says he likes having them at his mother’s, where the many
family members who regularly cycle through the house are able
to enjoy them.
doesn’t mind having them, pero she’s telling me every
day to think about what I’m going to do when they’re bigger.”