Michigan man builds haven for rescued alligators

At 9 feet long and around 350 pounds, the alligator known as Godzilla lives up to his name: A body plated with pointed, armor-like scales known as scutes. Massive jaws that hold up to 80 sharp teeth and snap shut on reflex. A powerful tail.

He could do some damage if he wanted to.

Sunning himself on the edge of a black-plastic-lined pond on a spring morning with temperatures in the mid-50s, Godzilla looks peaceful, as happy as he might be in a Louisiana bayou or a water hazard on a Florida golf course, according to the Lansing State Journal.

But the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary, where Godzilla and more than 100 or so other gators live in relative harmony, is in Calhoun County’s Athens Township, just north of the Village of Athens.

Most of the gators were rescued when they wore out their welcomes as house pets, and they owe their lives to David Critchlow, a retired Fed Ex employee who simply loves reptiles, especially alligators and their close relatives in the scientific order known as Crocodilian.

“Who doesn’t love dinosaurs?” Critchlow asks, looking over a pond of he refers to “middle school,” because all of the gators within it are mid-sized, 4 to 5 feet long. “This is kind of a modern-day dinosaur.”

How do the gators get here?

If an alligator is in Michigan, and it’s not owned by a zoo, or an aquarium, or some kind of educational group, it’s probably going to need rescue at some point in its life.

A baby alligator is only about six inches long, easy to handle and not likely to inflict severe or permanent damage on its owner.

“They’re pretty cute when they’re little,” Critchlow said.

People bring them home from Florida and buy them on the Internet. Michigan has no rules against keeping an alligator as a pet, although some cities do, including Detroit.

Critchlow said he most often gets calls about alligators that are in the 3- to 4-foot range: no longer cute, and big enough to hurt somebody.

“That’s when the animal becomes an issue,” he said. “Most people really don’t deserve this animal because they don’t know how to take care of it properly.”

Critchlow won’t come get your alligator, in most cases. You have to make an appointment to bring it to him. It also isn’t free. He charges a fee based on the size of the animal.

Once he gets a new alligator, Critchlow works to acclimate it to the outdoors — he can tell by the tone of an alligator’s markings whether it has ever lived in sunshine before — and to the company of other alligators.

“Whenever we put a new animal into an exhibit, they go straight into the water,” he said. “They feel very safe in the water, so they can start there and explore.”

Alligators are part of the Crocodilian order of large, predatory, semi-aquatic animals. It also includes crocodiles (native to Asia and Africa) Caymans (native to South America and the Caribbean) and the critically-endangered gharial, a fish-eating beast native to India.

Although fossilized crocodilians have been found as far north as Canada, the native range of the modern American alligator is the southern U.S. Florida and Louisiana have the most alligators, but gators also live in swamps, lakes, rivers and ponds in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma. A smaller type of alligator lives in China but is highly endangered.

The alligator family’s closest relatives in the animal world may not be what you expect: “Birds and crocodiles are more closely related to each other than they are to lizards and snakes,” said Jim Harding, a reptile expert who is wildlife outreach specialist at the MSU Museum.

Alligators grow throughout their lives, as much as a foot a year in the wild. Those at Critchlow’s sanctuary grow more slowly. After they’re mature, they can grow as little as a quarter of an inch a year. They can live 100 years or more and grow new teeth at regular intervals. Males can reach 18 or more feet in length, although that’s rare.

Critchlow feeds his alligators a specialty food made by a division of Purina. In the wild, depending on their size, alligators eat worms and snails, fish, turtles, small mammals and birds. A large alligator can eat a deer or even a wild pig.

A big alligator won’t think twice about eating a smaller alligator, but even an enormous alligator is unlikely to attack a human, Harding said.

“If you keep it fat and happy and full of fish and warm enough, alligators aren’t known to be terribly aggressive,” he said. “That’s why you don’t hear a lot about alligator attacks down in Florida, even though there are quite a few down there.”

The son of a biology teacher, David Critchlow spent plenty of time in nature growing up in Bellevue.

“I was always the kid out playing in the field,” he said.

He was especially fascinated, though, by alligators. Maybe it was the dinosaur thing. Or their long lives. Or their strength and power.

“The alligator kind of represents a connection to ancient natural history,” he said.

Critchlow’s mother, Mary Critchlow, is a frequent helper at the sanctuary.

“She says I’m a kid that just never grew up,” he said.

The sanctuary is a family affair.

David and Carmen Critchlow have been married for 35 years. He took a Fed Ex buyout in 2004 after 25 years with the company and founded the sanctuary in 2010. She’s the co-owner and is in charge of arts and crafts. He picks up teeth the alligators shed. She makes them into necklaces and charms to sell.

Their grown children also lend a hand. Their son, Peter, recently left a retail job to join the sanctuary full-time. Daughter Lina Kelly and her husband, Kyle, live nearby. Their 3- and 5-year-old daughters are frequent visitors.

Lina has trained as reptile keeper, including sessions at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and training at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida. She also has studied crocodilians in the wild in Panama.

“I’m more of a hands-on type of guy,” David Critchlow said. “She is more, ‘You need strict procedures with these animals.'”

The sanctuary takes up about 2-1/2 acres of a 4-1/2 acre parcels of land in Athens Township. An original plan to build near Cornwell’s Turkeyville in Convis Township near Marshall was opposed by neighbors.

Critchlow said he thinks it’s a misunderstanding of alligator behavior that would cause a reaction like that, and part of his mission is education. He does 100 to 200 presentations a year, speaking to school and community groups to dispel alligator myths.

He often takes alligators and other reptiles with them to these events, so people can see the close-up. Right now he often travels with a foot-long guy named Jonah; a gator named Alphabet Soup has markings that, with a little imagination, spell out the letters “W-I-L-D” on one side of his body and the numbers “6-0-9” on the other.

Critchlow recently did a presentation at the Portland Conservation Club, to raise money for Portland’s Red Mill improvement project. Barbara Ingraham, one of the organizers, said the event drew 473 people who paid $5 each to see Critchlow and his alligators, snakes and a tortoise. Her one-word description: “awesome.”

“It was really good,” she said. “People stayed around after the presentation for a long time.”

The entire sanctuary is enclosed by a solid, 8-foot fence with locked doors.

Inside, people are separated from the gators by double wire fences with a 3-foot gap between them, to make sure nobody puts a hand or foot where it doesn’t belong.

Alligators are grouped by size, which is the best way to keep them from fighting with each other. The nursery, with the smallest animals, is covered by a roof so big birds such as herons won’t fly in to pick up lunch. Elementary school is 2-foot alligators; middle school is 3-to-4-foot gators; high school is 5 to 6 footers. College holds anybody larger and isolation exhibits for large new arrivals.

The sanctuary is a work in progress.

“The first four years were survival,” Critchlow said. “It evolves on a daily basis. Now we’re trying to make the park better.”

Critchlow plans to break ground in June on a new building to house gators for the winter. A new ramp leads to a seating area over the enclosure for the largest gators, where Critchlow and his crew will give daily presentations about alligator behaviors. A pile of earth near Godzilla’s pond will serve as a mound, and Critchlow plans to train Godzilla to sun himself on it to give visitors a better view.

Train him?

Critchlow does train the biggest alligators — not to do tricks, but to make them easier to handle.

Harding, the MSU reptile expert, said that is possible: “For a suitable reward, these things can be acclimated to certain behaviors,” he said. “I’m sure they can get into a routine.”

Using food rewards and strict routines, gators larger than 5 feet get a name if they don’t have one already. Besides Godzilla, there is Medusa, so named because she’s kind of ugly and a little cranky — Chuckles, Spot and Tom, who was named by his previous owners.

Critchlow has trained 80-pound Grace, who came to the sanctuary with a missing left foot, to lie still for medical treatment. Godzilla will be trained to “give blood,” which means staying still for a medical exam. Critchlow also wants to train him to recognize words in Spanish.

He also plans to train the bigger animals to move under their own power from their summer ponds to the winter enclosure where they hibernate from November through April.

The alternative? Strapping their jaws shut and carrying them, which bears some risk, mightily annoys the alligator and requires a team of six to eight people.

He plans future improvements, including adding exotic fish in a separate exhibit: peacock bass, pacu, oscars, and others like the fish featured on the popular TV show “River Monsters.”

You may already see one of Critchlow’s tortoises. The grass-eating reptiles are like slow-moving lawn mowers.

“I want to make something new every time somebody wants to come back,” he said. “Always growing, evolving and improving.”

The expansion and improvements are also designed to make room as the alligators grow.

“When the smaller alligators get bigger, we’ll build a new building,” Critchlow said. “As the collection grows, we will accommodate that. In five years, we will have a lot of 10- to 11-footers out here.” (AP)

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