School alligator has mysterious demise

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

PALMER (AP) -- Mitch the alligator spent the past year and a half in the greenhouse at Palmer High School, living large.

At mealtime, chunks of salmon and halibut dropped into his pen. Mitch soaked in a palm-rimmed pond or napped in a cave under a heat lamp.

Occasionally, a turtle that shared the pond would crawl into the cave and lounge on the 6-foot gator's back, under the warm lamp.

But the alligator idyll came to an end, probably a tragic one from Mitch's point of view.

He disappeared over spring break. He never made it to the Florida game farm where he had a reservation.

In any case, Mitch no longer lives at Palmer High.

Inspection officer Mike Kiehn, an agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said the alligator was dead and that Palmer High agriculture teacher Don Berberich told him he shot it.

Berberich, a respected teacher, maintains he didn't shoot the alligator.

Berberich inherited Mitch from a Wasilla couple who had a new baby, the teacher says. Last school year, a custodian asked Berberich whether he wanted her daughter's alligator for the greenhouse pool. Berberich, who had baby alligators when he grew up in Ohio, was intrigued.

''I said, 'How big is it?' '' he said. ''She said, 'Two feet long.'''

The alligator he loaded into his pickup was twice that size, the teacher says.

''I can see trouble here,'' he recalled thinking. ''Instead of saying 'No way, this is dumb,' I went ahead, thinking 'This will be cool.' All the way home, I'm wondering how I'm going to tell my principal.''

Two days later, administrators at the Matanuska-Susitna School District mandated that the gator had to go. But time passed and nothing definitive happened, Berberich said.

District officials contacted Palmer High last year because they worried that Mitch might hurt students, and they also wanted the greenhouse used for studying Alaska agriculture, said Kim Floyd, spokeswoman for the district.

A fence surrounding the gator's pen was too high for younger students to even look in, Berberich said. Two seniors made the gator their senior project, and they were really the only students who interacted with Mitch.

Mitch continued o grow, to 6 feet in length. He was thought to be an American alligator, which can grow to 500 pounds and 14 feet, with 74 to 80 teeth.

Spring break seemed like a good time to evict Mitch, Floyd said. The district sent out a memo that all animals had to go home over the break.

Palmer police sent an animal control officer to the school March 25, according to a borough memo. The officer found a well-fed alligator, along with the district superintendent, the borough's risk manager and a few others.

Superintendent Bob Doyle reportedly told the officer to load the gator into his truck. The officer balked, saying he didn't have the right equipment or a place to put the creature. But he offered to try to find a proper home.

''The School District gave him a deadline of Friday, March 28 (the end of spring break), to remove the alligator, with implications that something would be done to the alligator if it were not removed by the Friday deadline,'' the borough memo says.

The animal control officer, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game worked to find Mitch a home. They contacted the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, a zoological park in Florida.

Curator John Brueggen said he agreed to take the alligator as long as the Alaskans would pay Mitch's way, which he estimated at $300.

The agencies were probably days away from finding a way to pay for the trip, said Kiehn of Fish and Wildlife.

After animal control couldn't collect Mitch, Berberich said, ''they set up something else. I went skiing.''

When spring break ended a few days later, the gator was gone. Berberich said the last he heard, the reptile was bound for Florida.

But Mitch never made it there, curator Brueggen said.

Borough Attorney Elizabeth Friedman said animal control officers did not take the gator. The borough's ''Alligator Status Memorandum'' says the alligator's unnamed owner took the animal home and shot it.

The case remains under investigation.

It's not necessarily illegal to kill an alligator. But the authorities suspect that Mitch was an American alligator, protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Once decimated by hunters to make handbags and boots, the alligators have rebounded. They remain protected because most hunters can't differentiate them from rare American crocodiles, Kiehn said.

Alligators acquired as pets are generally farm-raised. A Fish and Wildlife agent is trying to find out whether the alligator's importation to Alaska, or his apparent demise, violated any laws.

Berberich, the teacher, says he won't miss the fish smell in his greenhouse. All the same, he said, he remembers fondly the day Mitch moved in.

''When we turned him loose in that pond, he was just lovin' it.''



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