8-footer outgrows N.Y. basement, moves to Tampa

Croc Encounters offers sanctuary to JoJo and other displaced alligators.

Published June 19, 2007

TAMPA - JoJo wasn't the average house pet. Forget a leash, and don't even think about a collar.

Maybe a chew toy. A really large chew toy.

The 8-foot, 170-pound alligator had lived in the basement of a reptile collector in Buffalo, N.Y., until conservation police intervened on Sunday. They handed him off to John and Laura Paner, owners of Croc Encounters, an educational and rescue facility in Tampa.

The Paners are bringing JoJo home with them, along with 13 alligators they picked up in Cincinnati. Buffalo authorities will soon ship them one or two more rescued in western New York.

Florida happily imports snowbirds from New York. But does it really need more alligators?

John Paner said almost all of Croc Encounters' 100 alligators come from other states, sent to Tampa by law enforcement or animal rescue facilities that did not want to kill the reptiles.

Croc Encounters uses its animals in hands-on educational programs for youth groups or birthday parties. The sanctuary also houses snakes, turtles and other reptiles less toothy than the crocodilians.

"We get out there and get the word out that reptiles are not these scary, nasty creatures, " Laura Paner said. "They play a very important role in the ecosystem."

The unidentified reptile collector kept JoJo in good condition, said Laura Paner. He voluntarily called authorities when he could no longer take care of his pet. Keeping alligators is illegal under New York state law.

"We have college kids bringing them back from Florida every year, " said Lt. Jeff Jondle of the New York state conservation police. "But 8 feet's probably a little larger than usual."

During the trip back to Tampa, JoJo will stay in a cage, Paner said. He will be kept in the dark, which will keep him from moving around. "It kind of looks like a coffin, " she said.

Usually, the sanctuary ships its animals to Florida via Delta Air Cargo, but JoJo was too big.

The Paners recently installed an 80- by 80-foot pond for the sanctuary's crocodilians. The grounds of the nonprofit facility, home to more than 200 animals, are on Bowles Road in east Tampa. It will open to the public later this year.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Sarah Mishkin can be reached at smishkin@sptimes.com or 813 225-3110.