tampabay.com

A sanctuary for the scaly

By MARTY CLEAR
Published July 13, 2007


Like most Florida transplants from places like Pennsylvania and New York, JoJo and Amos came here mostly because of the climate.

And their itinerary has involved spending a lot of time relaxing near the water and eating fresh seafood.

But unlike most newcomers to Florida, JoJo and Amos have cold blood and dark green skin.

JoJo and Amos are alligators. They hail from Buffalo, N.Y., and Ambridge, Pa., respectively. They now live in much more appropriate surroundings at Croc Encounters, a sanctuary just off U.S. 301 straddling Tampa and Brandon.

Their neighbors are several hundred reptiles and amphibians - gators, iguanas, reticulated pythons and something called White's dumpy tree frogs.

In the mammalian minority are John and Laura Paner, who started Croc Encounters two years ago. They do it for the love of all creatures green and scaly.

"My background is in networking technology," John Paner said. "I walked away from a fairly lucrative career to work for basically nothing for these animals."

The Paners came to Florida from Erie, Pa., a couple of years ago to start a haven for reptiles, specifically crocodilians. Hillsborough County turned out to be the ideal location.

"We needed acreage, but we wanted to be near a big city and we wanted to be near a university, which is where we get a lot of our volunteers," Laura Paner said. "We looked all over the state and we decided on Tampa, and it's been perfect."

The Paners bought 22 acres on Bowles Road and started digging ponds. They live in the upstairs part of a house on the property. The downstairs is the Croc Encounters office.

They're hoping to open Croc Encounters to the public before too long. For now, it's merely a sanctuary with ponds and enclosures for all manner of cold-blooded animals.

The Paners are both longtime admirers of reptiles and have long held the special licenses and certifications needed to keep and transport exotic animals. Amos the alligator was their first reptilian pet, and one of the driving forces behind Croc Encounters. He's about 8 feet long and still growing, so it wouldn't have been practical to keep him indoors in Pennsylvania much longer.

The Paners have already become well known among wildlife officials around the country, and that's where they get most of their animals these days. They acquired JoJo just a few weeks ago, when a letter carrier in Buffalo saw the gator walking along the street. State wildlife officials captured JoJo, contacted the Paners and made arrangements for JoJo to retire to Florida.

JoJo flew to Tampa in a climate-controlled cargo hold on Delta Air Lines and the Paners picked him up at the airport.

So what was an alligator doing wandering around in Buffalo, N.Y.? It's not as unusual as you might think, the Paners say.

"People get these animals when they're small and cute and they don't know what to do when they get bigger and more aggressive," Laura Paner said. "They think it's okay to let them go."

One problem with that: A gator raised in captivity learns to associate humans with food and might approach the nearest person looking for a handout.

Some people, she said, acquire gators as pets and believe that keeping it in a small enclosure will prevent normal growth. The Paners got Amos, their first gator, from a Pennsylvania man who had been keeping him in an aquarium.

The Paners pay for their operation with donations and a couple of grants. They do demonstrations for school groups, Scout troops and other groups to earn money and get the word out. They have about two dozen volunteers who help with all kinds of work. A few weeks back, because of the volunteers, the Paners managed to go out to dinner and a movie for the first time in months.

But essentially, they have no time and no money. They'd love to have more volunteers, and donations of money, supplies or services are always welcome.

Still, no complaints. The Paners are happy to devote their lives to reptiles.

They have a bit of difficulty trying to explain their attraction to animals that some people find scary, strange or just generally unattractive.

"They're just such amazing, adaptable animals and they've been around for millions of years," Laura Paner said. "I think maybe that's the attraction. And they're so misunderstood. That's one thing we're trying to do with Croc Encounters is to raise awareness of what special creatures these are."