ATHENS, Mich. -- From time to time we hear about people who own exotic animals in West Michigan. Not surprising to hear about ferrets, raccoons...even pythons. But there's a place just south of Battle Creek that's home to more than a hundred American alligators.
Jonah is a little gator just under six inches long. He's got cute little teeth and is easy to hold. But tiny Jonah can grow up to be 18 feet long with a mouthful of jagged teeth.
“He came from a church; yep I don’t remember what church, but he was sitting on a doorstep of a church," Peter Critchlow, manager of Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary says, "Somebody had him as a pet and decided it wasn't something they wanted or maybe mom said nope. So they had to take it somewhere. But he ended up here.”
The Alligator Sanctuary is in Athens, just south of Battle Creek. Every animal they have is a rescue from zoos that lost their funding or pet alligators that have outgrown their homes.
“We’ve got gators that lived in people’s houses as pets that didn't have cages, slept on their couches, lived in their bath tubs," says Critchlow.
Even zoos are not able to keep their animals happy. Which is how they got Grace, a 4-foot gator with a missing front foot.
“She was with an aggressive animal, the animal bit her foot. I don’t know the reason, but it’s something that does happen with alligators," Critchlow explains, "And when it does, it doesn't slow them down.”
The gators are trained by the staff at the sanctuary and are surprisingly tame. They know their names and come when they're called.
Lina Kelly, the park's enrichment director, says it’s a very quick process that usually takes a few days depending on the training sessions.
"We usually do about 10 minute training sessions a couple times a day. And over about 3 to 5 days they’ll pick up their name pretty easily.”
Kelly says they are not aggressive like wild alligators because they are not fed meat with blood, so they never get the aggressive stimuli like gators in the wild. Instead they're fed Purina alligator nuggets, a fish based snack. Because they're hand fed, it's easy for trainers to learn their personalities...even with the big ones.
“I love them all but my favorite is Godzilla. Godzilla is our biggest gator, he’s over 9 feet. But he’s just a big puppy dog. He loves a lot of interaction," says Critchlow, "Most gators when you give them a treat they’ll take that treat and go back in the water. But Godzilla when you give him a treat he’ll usually stick around and demand two or three sometimes four treats.”
Critchlow never turns a reptile away and they've had people drive in from as far as California to surrender their pets. If people didn't have a place to take their large reptiles the future would be grim for the prehistoric looking animal.
“Unfortunately they’d probably be euthanized because they can’t be re-released into the wild," explains Kelly, "You can’t just call up a zoo and say hey we found an alligator will you take it?”
The sanctuary is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visit their website for more information.