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Alligators Need Medical Care Just Like Any Other Animal; Here’s How a Large Reptile Vet Check is Done 

In keeping with Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo’s mission to put animal welfare first, animal care specialists got up close and personal with the Zoo’s pair of American alligators last week. The two nine-year-old reptiles, Randall and Dante, were due for their annual veterinary exam. The fact that alligators are extremely dangerous was not a consideration in scheduling their veterinary appointment; how to catch them and hold them still for the doctor was. 

“Good veterinary care is vital to the wellbeing of our animals,” said Gregg Dancho, Zoo director. “We spend a great deal of time and effort on preventative health care, and the alligators are no different from any other animal.  Our caretakers are carefully trained and practice the appropriate techniques for handling alligators, and their vet exam took place safely.”

Key to safety was a team of experienced caretakers, each with a very specific task assigned to them. Animal Curator Rob Tomas gathered a group of six caretakers, and detailed plans for catching one alligator at a time. “Each caretaker has a very specific job, and when things start moving fast, you have to stay focused on the one task you were given to do,” said Tomas.

It’s easier to catch an alligator on land than it is in water, so the first retrieval took place while Randall was sunning himself by the viewing window, to the delight of Zoo guests. A small loop was slipped over his head, then his eyes were quickly covered to keep him calm.

“It’s important to keep the alligator as calm as possible, because when alligators start to fight and struggle they can build lactic acid in the blood stream (Metabolic Acidosis) which can hamper their mobility, and can take minutes to hours to recover from over-exertion, and once released can have lasting effects,“ explained Tomas. “Covering the head and eyes minimizes the need to fight and the alligator stays calmer. Our entire focus is on keeping the alligator from being harmed.”

Tomas explained the procedure for capturing alligators to another group of zoo caretakers there for education and observation. “When you have hands on the alligator, you can feel him tense up,” he told them. “If you put a little more pressure on him, you’ll feel him relax.”

Experience helps. Dante and Randall’s regular caretakers, Chris Barker and Bethany Thatcher, have spent years caring for the pair.  “I’ve been working with the alligators for 19 years,” said Barker. “I began right here at Beardsley when I was 16 years old.”

Once captured, the alligator is brought to the back of the exhibit, where he is weighed and measured. The veterinarian carefully examines his body for any damage or signs of illness, then he is quickly returned to the pond, another potentially dangerous operation. A sigh of relief from Tomas, Thatcher, and Barker, then it’s time to catch his pond mate, Dante.

Dante presented a bit more trouble by returning to the water and eluding his captors for nearly an hour, offering Zoo guests a thrilling view into the depth of commitment by the caretakers. At one point, Tomas waded into the pond with the two alligators to help the caretakers on land with the loop. Eventually Dante, too, was safely secured, and underwent his vet exam.

Randall measured 106 inches, or 8.8 feet long, and 187 pounds. Dante measured 95 ¾ inches, or 8 feet long, and 175 pounds. Both had grown slightly since last year, a sign of their good health.

“Our alligators are an important part of our Zoo family,” said Tomas. “Alligators have been around for approximately 240 million years. That’s an incredible history of survival.”