Florida’s most famous resident is the American Alligator. But the state is also home to one of the Alligator’s much smaller cousins–which is not supposed to be here. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Florida was undergoing a tourist boom, as post-war middle-class Americans with disposable income sought vacations in the land of sun and sand. And one of the most popular “souvenirs” that tourists brought home with them were baby American Alligators. Since baby gators don’t remain “babies”, most of the ones that survived the often-improper care they received were set loose outside somewhere (or, as legend has it, were flushed down the toilet to populate the underground sewer tunnels).
By 1960, legal steps were taken, at both the state and federal level, to first regulate and then to completely ban the trade in baby Alligators. So, the pet industry made a substitution–dealers began importing juvenile Spectacled Caimans (Caiman crocodilus) from Central America. These were often sold as “Alligators” or “Dwarf Alligators”, and most of the people who purchased them probably never knew the difference. By 1970, tens of thousands of baby caimans had entered the US. Most of them, like the baby Alligators before, quickly died.
The few who survived soon got too big and too hard to handle, and were often dumped by their owner. In most places, these quickly died too: caimans are very susceptible to cold and cannot tolerate winter temperatures in the US. The sole exception to this was South Florida, where the climate suited them. By 1968, Spectacled Caiman nests were being found in Dade County, confirming that a breeding population had already been established. By 1974, there were enough Caimans in Florida to alarm state wildlife officials, who introduced a program to exterminate them from the area around Homestead Air Force Base. That effort failed, and the Caiman continued to spread. They got a boost in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a number of exotic-pet breeding facilities and released a number of species, including Spectacled Caiman, into the wild.
Today, there are breeding populations in Dade and Broward Counties, and non-breeding groups have been sighted as far north as Palm Beach and Seminole Counties. In addition, breeding colonies have become established in Puerto Rico and in Cuba (where the Caiman is a competitor with the endangered Cuban Crocodile). Individual escapees have been reported all over the US, but only southern Florida provides a climate in which they can survive the winter.
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