Lost crocodile bound for new home

This male American crocodile is riding to Gatorama in Palmdale, Fla. The crocodile was caught off Isle of Palms and had his DNA tested to determine his lineage.

Melissa Haneline

With a fierce thrash of its tail, a wayward crocodile hitched a ride home Wednesday after being pulled from the surf at Isle of Palms a week ago. It was carted by truck to a crocodilian tourist attraction in the Everglades.

The legs of the 6-foot croc were cut free of hog ties, and it thrashed once, knocking three handlers off balance a moment. They wrestled it into a barred shipping crate in the bed of a pickup truck, with thick black tape wrapped snugly around its snout. Once in the crate, it settled down and stared through the blade-like slits of its eyes.

"Good boy," said reptile expert Roark Ferguson, slapping the crocodile's tail as it slithered into its crate.

The toothy reptile was snared near the Charleston County park pier after spending at least one winter in a Mount Pleasant pond.

It's headed for Gatorama, a 15-acre park of wetlands and hammocks that features daily alligator and crocodile shows, farm-raised alligator meat and boardwalk tours "teeming with alligators, crocodiles, monkeys, bobcats, panthers, birds and other Florida wildlife."

The crocodile will be held in quarantine for 30 days in its own pond but will be on exhibit, said park owner Allen Register. After that, the reptile will be introduced in stages to the park's 40 other crocodiles. The croc, which had been aggressive and hungry enough in the pond to snatch an egret as it tried to fly away, is going to softer digs. The menu is "mostly chicken," Register said. "Beef. Pork."

The transfer was approved by the Florida Wildlife Commission, which handles crocodiles, a tropical species recently downgraded from endangered to threatened. Its natural range is thought to reach only as far north as southern Florida. The commission decided not to release it in the wild for a number of reasons, including the fact that crocodiles will attack each other when they are strangers in the wild, said Steve Bennett, of S.C. Natural Resources.

A bigger reason might be that once a crocodilian roams, it tends to continue roaming. A 6-foot alligator was trapped in a pond near Beaufort and released on Bears Island in Bull's Bay more than 30 miles and five river basins away. It was caught again in its home pond 14 years later — as a 10-footer.

Nobody knows how the crocodile ended up in Mount Pleasant, but there's a small chance the saltwater creature simply swam up the coast. Crocs have been known to swim 90 miles back and forth between the Florida Keys and Cuba. More likely, it was released by someone who kept it.

"Please don't release non-native species," Bennett said. People who collect exotic animals should find someone to handle them, or in the worst case, euthanize them rather than releasing them into the wild.

This croc, though, escaped the ax. Its ride had shade, shock absorbers and carried no Gatorama logo to call attention to its passenger. Travelling incognito, Register said with a grin.

In the group seeing the reptile off was Ronnie Russell, the 17-year-old Goose Creek trapper who waded chest deep in the surf to search out the crocodile and snare it. Catching a croc was a first for him, after grabbing more than a few gators. Was he sorry to see it go?

"Ready for another one," Russell said, grinning.