Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Sooner or later, they have to move the gators – via Herp Digest

The Virginian-Pilot, October 21, 2013, CHESAPEAKE

James Brown scrubbed Bubba's back while Chris Columbus rinsed him off.

The alligator hissed his approval.

Bubba and 11 other American alligators spent a sunny Sunday afternoon getting the royal treatment from volunteers who helped move them from their warm-weather digs to wintering pens in a large garage in rural Chesapeake.

There, they will spend several months in a state of semi-hibernation until temperatures start to rise in the spring. Sometime around April, the gators will move back outside to large cages equipped with kiddie pools.

The move has become a biannual ritual for Jimmi Bonavita, who has cared for his gators for nearly 35 years.

A former Virginia Beach police officer, Bonavita started taking care of the gators when no zoos would take Bubba and game department officials asked if he would.

"That was back when there were no permit laws," said Bonavita, who also has several dozen snakes. He said he now has an exhibitor's license and "all the necessary city and state permits you have to have."

Bonavita takes in the gators when they are confiscated from unlicensed owners.

"They would be put down if I didn't," he said. He said he spends several thousand dollars a year on caging, food and medical supplies for the animals.

His 12 gators range from as small as two feet up to 10 feet long.

Bonavita said that Buddy, one of his biggest alligators, was found in a dark basement, in bad health. Under his care, the animal, now about 15 years old, is a hefty 250 pounds and a toothy bundle of energy.

"People get exotic pets and aren't prepared for how big they'll get or how to even take care of them. They let them go in the wild or who knows what," he said, scratching Buddy at the base of his head while Brown and Columbus scrubbed algae and mud off him in preparation for his sterile winter home.

"You really have to be dedicated," Bonavita said, because gators can live to be as old as 70. "I have a trust set up so somebody can take care of them when I'm gone."

Bonavita, who works as an environmental protection specialist for the government, gives seminars on snake and reptile identification to rescue squads, fire departments, emergency room personnel and military units.

American alligators don't venture this far north on their own. The Pasquotank River in northeastern North Carolina is generally the northernmost point of their range. The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge just outside Manteo was named because of the reptile's presence.

"They're not supposed to be here, but people find a way and it's not in the animal's best interest," Bonavita said. "So I provide a valuable resource to local, state and federal authorities for the benefit of the animals and for the public at large.

"And I do it because I really care about them."

He explained that his gators wouldn't survive the cold winter if they weren't placed inside.

"They stop eating when it gets below 70 degrees," he told several dozen family members and friends who attend the event each year. "They haven't eaten in about a month and won't need to until they go back outside in the spring."

With all the large gators secure in their tanks, the volunteers gathered the smaller ones for photo opportunities. Little children rubbed their backs and pointed at the sharp teeth.

One youngster, bored with getting his picture taken, turned as he walked away and waved to the animals.

"See ya later, alligator."

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