What do you do with an alligator in your bathtub?
The short answer to the title of this piece is that you don’t put it there in the first place. I’m very pro freedom when it comes to owning most reptiles. I have been into thousands of homes and many have shown me their pet reptiles. The vast majority of folks keep them very well, from what I’ve seen. Even those who keep larger and more advanced reptiles.
There are some, however, that don’t make sense in so many ways that even I have to shake my head. This is a how-to manual to teach you that owning an alligator is actually a really bad idea for most people (especially in Utah). I am, however, going to teach you how to care for an alligator properly. I believe that knowledge will help folks make better decisions and this includes knowledge on how to do bad decisions correctly.
I’m also presenting this so that those who want a deeper understanding of what they see when they go to animal exhibits will be able to appreciate and compare enclosures at multiple facilities and be able to identify what the animal wants and what is there for the benefit of the humans looking at them.
What are Crocodilians?
Crocodilians are the group of animals that include alligators, crocodiles, caiman, and gharials. Much of this can be applied to most animals in this group but not all of it. The size variation alone is huge between species and that is enough to drastically change my views and the applications of these techniques without even going into the many other factors. Because of this I am going to focus on just one species. Due to its better temperament and easy availability in the U.S., the American alligator tends to be the crocodilian most folks often end up with so that is what I will be talking about here.
First off, planning ahead. Many of us aren’t very good at that. With an alligator that is properly cared for, the future is remarkably close. A properly cared for alligator should be growing at the rate of about one foot per year. Compared to a snake that sounds like nothing but snakes are skinny and gators are broad. Within a couple of years you are spending thousands of dollars on a cage for an animal that may have cost you forty. This sneaks up on most folks so the alligator ends up in the bathtub which is a situation that reeks of desperation, and impresses nobody. Now you desperately need a cage but you don’t have the time, money, construction experience, or space in your apartment to build a proper cage.
Many who think they are planning ahead will justify their baby gator by saying they will just sell it or give it to a zoo when it gets too big. Alligators are cheap. If you have the right connections they can be somewhere between free and ten dollars. Zoos have those connections so if they want an alligator they already have one. It is not their responsibility to bail you out of your dumb decision and unless your gator has two heads or some other spectacular feature they don’t want it. Resources are not unlimited for anyone and animal exhibits are no different. They don’t have the space, time, and money to house everything that comes their way. Especially when it comes to a species that they can’t easily re-home themselves. Sure you think it has value because you spent some of your hard earned money on it but it doesn’t. You may think it’s special but the market determines its actual value. One place you can always dump your gator is at a skin farm because they have a way to keep themselves from becoming overrun. They harvest them. I am ok with skin farms because we farm a lot of animals and objectively it isn’t really different from farming cows. The existence of skin farms has also benefited the survival of several species of crocodilians. Skin farms are a mixed bag of good and bad and are a whole article on their own so I won’t go into details here except to say that no one wants to see an animal they have accepted as their pet and friend go to that end.
Maybe you can sell it to some person who wants it? Private keepers are often able to keep reptiles better than zoos or parks because of the individual attention the animal can get that bigger organizations can’t provide. The same problem arises again though. Any private keeper capable of keeping a gator properly and legally already has one. Without the staff of a zoo, private keepers definitely can’t take on extra animals that are expensive and time consuming just so you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your decisions.
So the bottom line is that if you want a gator and you live where you can have one legally then make sure you can house it as an adult before you even get the baby because you have to expect to have it for your whole life. If properly cared for it will probably outlive you. You probably also want to start building it a bigger cage as soon as it is set up in its first cage so let’s talk caging.
In my experience a beautiful and elaborate cage will help you enjoy your animal more. The more natural behaviors you can allow for, the more you will enjoy the time with your animal. Humans also respond well to the features that may only add beauty for us to appreciate. Housing an animal in a bigger and more aesthetically pleasing enclosure is far more pleasing than getting another animal. In fact the next time you are thinking about buying another reptile pet, try building a more spectacular cage for one you already have instead. I’ll bet you like what you end up with more.
That said, your gator is going to outgrow several cages in its first ten years. Spending countless hours and many thousands of dollars on cages you will use for two years then throw away is far less rewarding. So I recommend basic simple cages at first.
What your gator requires in a cage is more important information than how I designed my own. You may have a better idea on how to create your own cage once you know what the gator needs. The cages need to be big compared to other reptiles because they need both land and water so you are sort of putting two cages together for them. From the gator’s perspective what it needs and wants are: water, land, UV light, and places to hide when young. The water needs to be 80 degrees Fahrenheit. There are several ways to do this from natural gas water heaters to electric fish tank heaters. For small cages I just use fish tank heaters. Before the gator gets big enough that it might be able to bite through one of those heaters and electrocute itself I replace it with a bucket heater. These are made for thawing buckets of ice on a farm. They are made to heat until the water is boiling so you have to get an electrician to rig up a thermostat with a probe that goes into the water so that you can plug the heater into that. That way you can adjust the temperature. These bucket heaters are also made of metal and have a metal shield around the hot part to help protect your gator. I have still seen alligators flatten them with a bite and when that happens you will want to replace it even though they tend to still work fine. There is no reason to take a chance with a damaged heater or electrical device of any kind around water.
The gator would also prefer to have murky water over clear water. It helps them feel hidden. If you have a large outdoor pond you may be able to get away with this because you have more of the natural defenses against bacteria build up such as sun and plants and bugs. For most enclosures in captivity murky water means you are collecting sewer contents in a giant tub. That is not just stinky and gross but also a threat to your animal and potentially you. Filtration is the best way to go but complete water changes on a regular basis will also do the trick. Make sure to bleach the cage out when you change the water.
This leaves us with clean warm water but it is now clear and gators prefer murky. Just because they prefer it doesn’t mean they have to have it. If your gator grew up with clear water it will be even more accustomed to clear clean water so clear water won’t bother them once they are used to it. If you are still concerned you can put in some sticks, plants, rocks, etc. to give them features to make them feel more secure instead.
Your gator also needs land. It isn’t a fish. There are reptiles that only come up onto land to lay eggs and for no other reason, but gators are not one of them. They need enough land to be able to get all of the way out of the water and stretch out. On land there should be a basking area that is 90 degrees. As your gator gets bigger it will need multiple lights and heaters to achieve this over a large enough area. The basking area also needs to supply ultra violet light. They are a basking animal and UV light kills bacteria that can grow on the skin. It also provides vitamin D. There is some debate about whether gators really need the UV and while those who don’t use it can still have robust looking gators they also tend to have less than ideal teeth. Teeth are a great marker for assessing the care a gator has gotten long term.
I use a bank of heat lamps that also provide UVA and UVB light. Getting all three of these things into one lamp makes the lamp more expensive and for bigger gators you will need multiple lamps. Another way to accomplish this is fluorescent lamps that provide UVA and B and separate heating elements arranged around the same area. This is cheaper and probably better in the long run since the UV bulbs will have to be replaced more often than the heaters, but it also takes up more space and you will need more plugs for power.
If you live in a place where you can keep that water at least 70 degrees without an electric bill that might bankrupt you then outside is the best place to put your gator cage. You save the cost of a building and they get their warmth and UV from real sunshine. Make sure you provide some shade over the water for all times of the day so the gator can escape the sun if it chooses to. If you have to be indoors you are looking at the animal taking over an entire large bedroom.
Accomplishing the land and water in the same cage can be done in a few ways. You could use a stock tank that is low enough for it to get into and out of in a large room or cage. If it is in a room you will have to install windows into the walls and doors so you can tell where the animal is before you enter. Besides that there isn’t much point in having it in a room where you can’t see it.
The advantage to this set up is that with the water in just a large unobstructed tank it is easier to clean. The downside is it will probably hide behind the tank, which can be a pain in some situations. It will also get water all over the room so you need water tolerant floors and walls and possibly a floor drain.
If it is in a cage outside make sure the fencing goes into the ground a couple feet so it can’t dig under. In spite of the fact that they generally chose not to, gators can climb. They can even climb chain link fences in some situations so it is best to build, not just walls, but a fenced in ceiling too, or at least tip in the tops of the fences so they over hang at the top. If you have to worry about people coming over that might stick their fingers through the fence you will have to build some sort of protection to keep them from doing that as well.
Be very careful that you don’t build in an area that the gator can get into but not out of. For example: if you build a square fence that fits tightly around a round stock tank you will end up with four open triangular corners that your gator can get down into. Then you have an adventure dismantling your cage to retrieve the stuck animal and it, or yourself could get hurt.
The land portion of the cage can be built into or separate from the pond area. I have one inexpensive (around $600 to build) intermediate cage that is made from a stock tank that has a fence built into the rim so that the edge of the tank is also the edge of the cage. The fence also goes over the top of the cage with enough height for us to get into it without having to crouch. This height is necessary to get into the cage safely with the gator.
The land area on this is a water proofed board cut to fit the shape of the cage and cover approximately one third of the floor. For the board I used hardibacker painted on both sides with a textured deck paint then completely covered in two coats of epoxy. The board is then placed on cinder blocks to hold it at the height that I want the water.
The up side is that this is super easy to build and super inexpensive. It’s the cheapest way I have found. The down side is that since water is among the cinder blocks underneath the land the cleaning is a pain. It isn’t filtered so I have to drain it with a sump pump then pull the landing area and cinder blocks out and clean them all off then pull out a shop vac and suck up whatever water the sump pump didn’t get then mop the whole stock tank with bleach. Then I have to put it all back together again. It’s time consuming and no fun and has to be done at least once a week and usually more.
I have another intermediate sized cage that is built with the land as a separate area from the water. I still used a stock tank for the water portion but then I built a landing deck that is level with the top and one side of the tank. Since the tank is oval in shape and the cage I built around it is square, I had to build it so that the gaps that form from putting a round block into a square feature were covered, strong, and secure. This cage was more expensive and took longer to build. In the long run it is much easier to clean. With the land external from the water area there is nothing in the way of me just pumping it out and bleaching it. If you’re willing to spend the time and money on the initial project I highly recommend the second version over the first but it cost more than $3000 to build and it is still a very simple cage.
When you get into your final cage you really should go with filtration. If you take the time you can make the area the water gets pumped into the enclosure into a beautiful water feature.
Feeding your gator. They eat meat. They can even eat meat that has gone bad to a certain degree but there is a point where it too rotten even a gator doesn’t want it. In spite of urban legend they don’t actually try to rot meat by stashing it intentionally before eating it. They like fresh meat as much if not more than rotten meat.
Organ meat is where all the real nutrition is. Humans in America tend to avoid organ meat but as meat goes it is much better for you. Gators don’t eat veggies so the only place they get their vitamins is from the organ meat. So while it is cheaper to get chicken strips from the grocery store, what they really need is the whole animal. Rats, chickens, and mice are all popular for smaller gators but frogs, snakes, and fish are ok too. For alligators we try not to make fish the main portion of its diet due to one specific nutritional effect concerning frozen fish and gators that I won’t go into here.
Gators are more active than snakes and they eat more so don’t compare food quantities with snakes. There will come a point where you will be feeding your gator two to three large rats in a week. Retail is around $40 per week in food. Mazuri does make a pellet type food specifically for crocodilians and it is nutritious. That may save you some money. Some gators like it some don’t. I have found that it fouls the water quickly so I have to change the water two times more often than with feeding them rats. Try to keep some diversity in their food. Rats are a great staple but try to give it something else from time to time as well. If you are in a bind you can do chicken strips from the grocery store temporarily but only very sparingly as they will be missing key nutrients on just that. Missing nutrients for a long time can mean anything from serious health problems to just wonky teeth depending on what is missing and for how long.
The less you have to handle your gator the better for the both of you. Because of that, the best final cage would be one that has an inside area and an outside area. It should also have land and water in each side to deal with the seasons and a door in between the two so you can lock it in one area while you clean or repair the other. Eventually you will still have to catch your alligator for some reason though.
I won’t go too in depth about handling because it really is something that should be learned hands on and in person from an experienced gator person. Babies are easy to just grab without any real risk to you beyond the potential need for a band-aid. As it gets bigger you will still just grab it, but it will be faster and can cause more damage. It may be helpful to throw a wet towel on its head when catching it at this size. Eventually you have to use tools like the top jaw rope to catch it. At this point you will be draining the gator’s pond every time you need to catch it. At this size the pond should be big enough that draining it is a nuisance in itself. Most folks know that gators don’t have much strength for opening their mouth so new people may grab too gently not realizing that they are still powerful and fast at slashing their head side to side. This maneuver allows them to free their mouth from your grasp only to swing back and grab the hands that were just holding it. If you are on its back holding its mouth it can roll to free itself and it can stand up and walk away with you on it as well.
In summary: crocodilians are illegal in many places as pets, including here in Utah. If you live somewhere that you can have a crocodilian legally then honestly think about whether you are ready. Crocs and gators are very advanced reptiles to keep. If you are legal and truly ready (really, don’t lie to yourself here) then there are species that are much better to keep long term than others like dwarf caiman and dwarf crocs.
Alligators do tend to have better temperaments than many other species but the large size is a big obstacle. Even if you have the resources to deal with the size, you still have to contend with the main reason I’m not a fan of the pet alligator for most folks, which is the lack of a back up plan. They are very long lived and very common and inexpensive. This means you will have it forever unless you want to give it up to a skin farm. It will be very difficult to sell or even give away to any descent home. No one will want your alligator when you decide it is too big or too expensive to keep. That means you will be signing up for a lifetime contract caring for this difficult animal. And this is coming from someone who would like to see more freedoms for advanced reptile keepers in most circumstances.
M. Shane Richins, Owner, Scales and Tails Utah