Senior Randi Block (left) and junior Erin Fla­herty (right) worked with alli­gators at Critchlow Alli­gator Sanc­tuary on Sat­urday.
Andrea Wallace | Courtesy

Hillsdale College stu­dents expe­ri­enced the swamps of the south­eastern United States in the heart of southern Michigan on Sat­urday.

Sixteen stu­dents and two faculty members from Hillsdale College visited Critchlow Alli­gator Sanc­tuary in Athens, Michigan. Jeffery VanZant, asso­ciate pro­fessor of biology and faculty adviser to the Pre-Vet­erinary Club, received an invi­tation a couple months ago from the owner of the alli­gator sanc­tuary, David Critchlow, who invited the club to help tag the new alli­gators so the sanc­tuary can scan and identify them.

Since there are only a handful of stu­dents in the club,VanZant extended the invi­tation to the Con­ser­vation Club.

“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” said sophomore Emily Skwarek, Con­ser­vation Club fundraising coor­di­nator. “I didn’t really know what to expect going into it, but I did not expect to be holding alli­gators.”  

According to VanZant, the group arrived at the sanc­tuary around 11 a.m. and the stu­dents’ day began by helping catch their swampy friends while bearing the bitter cold of Michigan’s mid-April winter.

After stu­dents helped remove the alli­gators from their enclosed habitat, they then taped the alli­gators’ mouths closed, carried them over to the cargo con­tainers, and began tagging the new alli­gators the sanc­tuary received over the winter.

The gators who were in need of tagging were only about 3 or 4 feet long, and the group tagged as many as 15 alli­gators. A passive inte­grated transponder tag, or PIT tag, is a little device about the size of a pen tip that is injected under the skin of the alli­gator back near its neck.

“In some animals, the tag could migrate around, usually you put them in by the hip area, but because of the structure of alli­gators with ridges of bones under the skin, you don’t have a problem with it migrating,” VanZant said.

The Critchlow Alli­gator Sanc­tuary is family-owned and was started about 10 years ago. It began as a sanc­tuary for native Michigan snakes and then moved into caring for exotic snakes. Now, it cares for 130 alli­gators. It has both preschool alli­gators, which are only a few feet long, and high school alli­gators, which can grow up to 14 feet. The Critchlow Sanc­tuary is one of the only alli­gator sanc­tu­aries in the Midwest, and it receives alli­gators from up to 900 miles away. Of its current gators, all but one are former pets. They usually come from people who could no longer keep them as pets or from zoos.

It is legal for people to own alli­gators in the state of Michigan.

“According to someone at the sanc­tuary, the only book on the laws regarding alli­gators in Michigan is that you can’t tie one to a fire hydrant,” VanZant said. “You can bet that somebody has done that.”

Both VanZant and Skwarek shared stories of Gutsel, a 14-foot gator, and Tom, an 8‑foot alli­gator. Tom is a former house pet that lived in an apartment with two men. He would watch TV with his owners and eat pizza off the couch.

Most of the alli­gators at the sanc­tuary have been around people for most of their lives and are domes­ti­cated. They will never be released back into the wild. The alli­gators don’t reproduce there, and the main focus of the sanc­tuary is to care for the alli­gators and help them live healthy lives.

“The sanc­tuary gives alli­gators a place to stay for the rest of their lives,” VanZant said. “When the fate and alter­native wasn’t good for the alli­gators, they go there.”

The sanc­tuary attracts lots of people, and vis­itors feed the alli­gators enough during the warm months that they don’t have to eat during the five months of winter.

Alli­gators have slow metab­o­lisms and are able to store fat in their tails. Since Michigan is not a typical climate for an alli­gator habitat, the alli­gators are kept in shipping con­tainers filled with water and are heated to about 55 degrees.

“It was a really special expe­rience,” said senior Andrea Wallace, Con­ser­vation Club pres­ident. “I think what stood out to me the most was how intel­ligent and sen­sitive alli­gators are and how sen­sitive they are to envi­ron­mental con­di­tions.”

VanZant said he hopes the clubs can make another trip to the sanc­tuary in the future.

“Stu­dents were pretty happy to be able to hold the alli­gators,” VanZant said. “It was a good expe­rience for all of them.”