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Photo: Chris Shields

Wetlands in the Living Room

Albany’s self-proclaimed Alligator Man wants to educate the public about his favorite endangered animals—

By Nicole Klaas


José 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.

“These 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.

“Don’t 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.

“He’s 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.”

“He’s 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.

“This 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 license.”

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.

“I 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.

“When 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.

“I 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.

“I 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.

“They 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.

“They 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.

“She 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.”

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