Having an alligator as a pet, or any other crocodilian, can be one of the most dangerous undertakings in the world. Be prepared.
So...you want to own an alligator? Did your son see one at the pet store? Are you a fan of the Australian guy on the television? Perhaps you are an experienced reptile owner who wants something more. In any event you may get in just a little over your head. Of the two-hundred million pets living in the United States only eight million are reptiles. Of that eight million how many are alligators? Almost none. The idea of domestic alligators is so new that there exists almost no body of common knowledge on the subject. This causes the owners to invariably give up the animal because they were totally unprepared. Do you want to be one of the alligator owners who gets bitten, destroys the animal, or has their house destroyed by the animal?
Let's go over the basics first. Of the many crocodilians available, caimans and alligators are the two most common in the pet trade. What is a caiman you ask? It is the closest thing to an alligator, indigenous to South America, and generally a bit smaller than its cousin to the north. Together they make up the family alligatorinae, so caimans and alligators are truly separate from other crocodilians. Alligators themselves are indigenous only to the southern United States and parts of China. You will know these reptiles by the wider head and jaws, darker coloring, and the fact that their lower teeth are concealed by the top of their mouths.
As a general rule you can expect caimans to grow to a length of six to seven feet; alligators can be expected to reach twelve to thirteen feet in length. Persons selling crocodilians as pets will most likely lower these numbers in the hopes of getting a sale--don't be fooled. Males are the larger sex, so if size is an issue try to get a female. You may also find that "dwarf" caimans are advertised. While they are on the smaller side, again, don't let someone swindle you. A four to five foot dwarf is more than enough reptile.
Now that we know what alligators and caimans are we will discuss attitude in both the animal and the owner. Can these reptiles be tamed? The real question is: do you have the wherewithal to try? Let's get something straight as pet owners, sightseers, and concerned citizens. Alligators are not loving, tender, or particularly good-natured when it comes to humans. We are mammals, we are weaker, we are usually smaller, and we aren't nearly as fast, and any one of those conditions puts us in the "food" category. But don't abandon all hope yet. Through diligent effort, in theory, any alligator owner can tame (or at least mildly calm) their pets. This entails lengthy physical contact on a daily basis for years on end. You will more than likely reduce its fear of you as a predator, thereby reducing stress for the animal in the long run. These activities should be engaged from the outset when the animal is as young as possible. Even after all that effort you still have to be careful. Your pet will always have the feeding instinct lingering.
Remember biology class lectures about the "reptilian" portion of the brain being the most primal? They weren't lying. In terms of mood you may be used to buying dogs or cats that are, worst case scenario, anywhere from bratty to bully. In a crocodilian this could translate into, over time or immediately, horrid to murderous. This is not something to get into if you have the savior syndrome. If you want a fixer-upper buy an old house. Having said all of that, it is true that alligators and caimans are considered the most docile of crocodilians and many owners have long and productive relationships with them. You just need to know what you are getting into in advance. These are not lap pets!
That is why you will have to consult local laws before proceeding further. This is a complicated matter as the situation is literally different everywhere. In the United States no national law exists covering the issue. State and county laws may have differing views, and in some areas laws directly contradict each other, such as ownership being legal but selling being illegal. Some states simply do all they can to keep citizens from buying alligators while others don't view it as a problem. Quite often there are permit issues involved. Without obtaining a permit you are facing misdemeanor charges and the possibility of having your animal destroyed by the authorities. Your local wildlife office should be able to guide you through the web of red tape.
Having armed yourself with a permit the next step is the actual purchase. This is a step that should be carefully thought through before finalizing any deals. Often the prices of alligators and caimans will be higher at pet shops, so do shop around and ensure that you are getting the best price possible. Another alternative is to seek out your local herpetological society. An unfortunately large number of alligators and caimans are abandoned and are taken in by herpetological society members. They try to place these reptiles in permanent homes but only if those inquiring have the proper knowledge of alligator husbandry.
When it comes to your first meeting with the animal you are considering buying you should examine it thoroughly. Pick it up and take a look at it. Minor scrapes and scratches are to be expected of crocodilians living in close proximity with each other but the injuries should be minor only. The belly should be smooth, no parasites (i.e. leeches) should be living in the folds of the skin, and the eyes and skin should be clean and fungus-free. Not only should the eyes be clean but fully open as well. Check to make sure that the base of the the tail and the neck are plump as these are the areas where fat should be stored. Inflammation in the throat could mean a respiratory infection of some sort.
One of the most basic aspects to consider is the animal's general demeanor. If you are a stranger picking up and restraining an alligator or caiman, it will try fairly hard to free itself. At the very least it should be extremely alert, even if it is calm (again there is a range in attitude from the beginning). If the reptile is lethargic or makes no noises you have every right to be suspicious. On the other hand, if all is well you may have just found your next pet. As a general rule, if a seller confides to you that they have been training this animal to attack, maim, or kill you should withdraw from the deal. Not only is this illegal but you are only asking for trouble as this animal may not be able to make a distinction between you and those animals (or persons) it is "supposed" to attack. Once you settle on a price and determine the overall health of the animal you are almost ready. You should have a habitat in place when the alligator comes home.
Yes, a habitat. Hopefully you have not been imagining something that will roam around the house! Some sellers will try to pressure you into a deal before you are fully prepared or will tell you that keeping the alligator in a small enclosure will limit its growth. No, it is not okay to keep it in a space that's too small because it will just get sick and possibly die. It will be just as bad to try to get by with an insufficient habitat for your alligator. The long term cost of the alligator you purchase is in the habitat itself. This area will need constant maintenance.
The width of your enclosure will need to be several times the length of the animal, generally three to four times. Obviously this changes over time as the alligator grows but if you plan ahead you can build an enclosure fitting the size you anticipate your animal will grow to. Of course, for the juveniles an aquarium can be suitable housing. Both water and land are required with about three quarters of the area devoted to water. you will find that your pet does indeed spend most of its time in the water but getting out onto soil is absolutely necessary. When designing this enclosure keep in mind that you will need entrances and exits and a system for cleaning the water. Items appropriate for the habitat are gravel, logs, and rocks. Plants do look nice but are unnecessary and will get destroyed by either the animal or your cleaning efforts. In building the water area you have to include some form of submersible heater.
When it comes to feeding you will again need to refer to your local laws and regulations. In some places it is illegal to feed live animals to predatory pets so watch your step. Crocodilians can consume a variety of foods. Alligators and caimans, like any other animal, can suffer from nutrient deficiencies, such as calcium deficiency, and these can take months to manifest visibly. By then you could be looking at a costly vet bill. For your animal's comfort and maximum health a completely balanced diet is recommended.
Insects tend to work for young crocodilians. They can be found at pet stores or acquired outside in pesticide-free areas. Be warned that the hard shells of certain insects may damage the sensitive digestive organs of young alligators and caimans. Finely chopped or ground prey items also work for juveniles. Adults can eat fish, living in the habitat or supplied at feeding time, mammals, and those with wide snouts (from the alligatorinae family) can handle shellfish. Feed is available commercially. If you are considering offering live animals to your pet alligator consider their relative size as they will put up a fight to avoid being eaten.
In terms of the physical feeding several things need to be considered. Caimans and alligators are quite capable outrunning horses for short distances, jumping, and worst of all mistaking a hand as being part of the food it holds. Feeding time is the single most dangerous, mostly due to human error. Depending on your set up and your pet's disposition you will need to make adjustments accordingly. The use of tongs has been implemented by some while others simply leave the food in a dry place. Putting food in the water means a more frequent water cleansing schedule. It is advised that you repeat none of the activities associated with feeding at any other time. Alligators can learn behaviors so you don't want to confuse them into thinking it's meal time by something you did on the way into the habitat.
As you can see, owning an alligator is something that requires research, money, and effort. If you don't think you are up to the task yet you should experiment with owning another reptile such as a snake. on the other hand you may be gung-ho and wondering why the other crocodilians have not been mentioned thus far. While the temperment of an alligator or caiman may be unpredictable crocodiles tend to be much worse. Crocs are not recommended for those with no experience. And, while many varieties of crocodile are available, availability does not translate into "appropriate." If you are up to the challenge you will find that owning an alligator can be quite rewarding. They can easily be lifelong companions with a lifespan of seventy years or more.