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.”