The existence of a young alligator in Chicago has sparked a social media craze throughout the Windy City as the animal continues to evade capture.

Update 7/16/19: “Chance the Snapper” has been successfully captured after a week of being at-large in the Humboldt Park lagoon.

On July 9th, 2019, Chicago officials confirmed the speculation that an alligator was residing in the lagoon of the Western Chicago neighborhood of Humboldt Park. The 4-foot crocodilian has been incredibly elusive so far, evading Chicago herpetologist “Alligator Bob”, who has scoured the lagoon by canoe and set multiple traps, a drone, and even Chicago Bulls’ mascot, Benny the Bull. The gator’s mere presence in Chicago, 900 or so miles from their northernmost ranges, has made the alligator a local celebrity. It even has its own Twitter account, going by the moniker “Chance The Snapper”.

As alligator watch stretches into its fifth day and Chicago’s “Gator Hysteria” continues to grow, I wanted to run through a couple of reasons why alligators are so incredible and explore Chicago’s surprisingly eventful alligator history.

Rulers of the Wetland

The American alligator is found in swamps and lakes from North Carolina to eastern Texas. Like its crocodilian brethren, the American alligator has maintained its prehistoric look and its ruthlessly efficient hunting techniques that have helped it, and its relatives, survive for eons. Alligators are studded with sturdy armor that runs the length of their bodies, which span almost 12 feet for the average male (over eight feet for females). Like other crocodilians, the alligator is an ambush predator, lying motionless near the shore with only its eyes and nostrils exposed, waiting for some hapless animal to venture too close to the water. The identity of that animal does not seem to matter too much to the alligator. Its jaws are strong enough to crack a turtle shell and it will happily eat anything from fish to snails to deer, which it rips apart by rolling its muscular body in the water, tearing off bite-size chunks of flesh as the animal drowns.

Inevitably, everyone who has seen an alligator always wonders the age-old question: What is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? The answer is all in the alligator’s mouth, the last place someone would want to look. When an alligator closes its mouth, its fourth tooth fits neatly into a socket in the upper jaw and is hidden. In crocodiles, teeth go both up and down when the jaws are shut. Additionally, alligators have more rounded, blunt snouts while crocodiles have more pointed snouts. Both types of crocodilians possess dozens of bone crushing teeth that make them the apex predators of the wetlands. Alligators have around 80 teeth in their mouth at any one time and are capable of replacing a lost or worn down tooth. Over the course of their life, they could go through some 3,000 teeth!

An American alligator basks in the sun at the Australia Zoo.

An American alligator basks in the sun at the Australia Zoo.

The American alligator, which descends from an ancient lineage of survivors, has clawed its way back from the brink of extinction. Hunted for leather since the 1800s, the American alligator was almost wiped out for belts and purses until hunting was outlawed in 1962. In 1967, the species was placed on the precursor to the Endangered Species Act, further helping America’s largest reptile rebound through strict conservation measures including captive breeding. Today, alligators are listed as a species of least concern (although habitat loss is still a threat), making them one of the poster boys for endangered species conservation in the United States.

Alligators in Chicago

The Humboldt Park gator may be the most “internet-famous” gator to find its way to Chicago, but it is hardly the first. An alligator was even found by a kayaker near Chicago last year. An alligator was fished out of the Chicago River in 1902 and again in 2008. Alligator Bob, the canoeing herpetologist trending online along with the reptile he is trying to capture, has even helped catch an alligator in 2010 in the North Branch of the Chicago River. Once he eventually captures the young alligator, the animal will be taken to a nearby zoo for a veterinary inspection and hopefully a new home.

“Chance the Snapper” did not naturally find his way to Chicago. The alligators existence in Chicago, in fact, highlights a dangerous predicament that is sadly too common. The alligator was likely someone’s pet who was not up to the task of caring for the reptile as it grew into the apex predator it is destined to become.

This trend of abandoning exotic pets extends well beyond Chicago and includes animals more ecologically destructive than alligators. In the Everglades swampland, which is native gator country, huge Burmese pythons are literally squeezing the life out of the ecosystem by consuming most of the mammals and birds living there. The existence of these giant snakes in an area where native animals have never seen anything like them has led to epically destructive showdowns between the area’s native reptilian rulers, the alligators, and the invasive intruders, the pythons. Many of these heavyweight tilts between these mammoth reptiles are fatal to both parties. These snakes are now too ingrained to ever be completely removed from Florid. The damage these snakes have caused to the Everglades’ ecosystem may be irreversible, and it’s all thanks to reckless pet owners releasing them in the wild.

The alligator still at-large in Chicago joins other strange, exotic species that have found their way into Chicago’s waterways as the results of absentee pet-owners and collectors. In 2013, a fisherman in nearby Indiana caught a giant South American fish known as a Pacu, a close relative to the piranha with eerily human-like teeth. Another one was caught closer to Chicago in 2018.

For the Humboldt gator, Pacu and countless pythons in the Everglades, the origin of the story is sadly the same: panicked owners desperate for a way out of caring for wild animals unsuitable for captivity release them in the wild instead of taking them to zoos and aquariums. In Illinois, where it is illegal to own an alligator, the owner of “Chance the Snapper” probably feared legal trouble and took the seemingly discreet route of releasing it in a lagoon where the animal quickly became Chicago’s most famous reptile. Hopefully the tale of the Humboldt Park alligator, when Alligator Bob eventually (knock on wood) wrangles it, will shed new light on the ecologically-destructive and inhumane (an alligator wouldn’t like a Chicago winter) practice of releasing exotic pets in strange areas hundreds of miles from their native homes.








Pictures and art by Jack Tamisiea.

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