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A New York man's pet alligator was seized after 30 years. Now, he wants Albert back

This photo provided by Tony Cavallaro shows his alligator, Albert, inside the custom enclosure he built for the reptile in his house in Hamburg, N.Y. The alligator was seized by the Department of Environmental Conservation in mid-March.
Tony Cavallaro via AP
This photo provided by Tony Cavallaro shows his alligator, Albert, inside the custom enclosure he built for the reptile in his house in Hamburg, N.Y. The alligator was seized by the Department of Environmental Conservation in mid-March.

HAMBURG, N.Y. — The owner of an alligator recently seized by conservation officers in New York is fighting for its return, saying the reptile he named Albert and has shared a home with for more than three decades is a gentle giant that's no danger to anyone.

Officers a week ago met Tony Cavallaro in the driveway of his suburban Buffalo home with a warrant, before sedating the 12-foot, 750-pound alligator, taping his mouth and driving him away in a van.

Cavallaro's license to keep Albert, who is 34 years old, had expired in 2021, the Department of Environmental Conservation said. But even if it had been renewed, Cavallaro had let other people pet the alligator, even get in the pool with him, providing grounds for the removal under the rules for keeping animals classified as dangerous, the department said.

Cavallaro, 64, sees Albert differently. His alligator was born and raised in captivity and has never showed signs of aggression toward people or other animals, he said. He recalled finding Albert curled up with his dog on the dog's bed when the alligator was smaller.

"He's just a big baby," Cavallaro said Tuesday, showing pictures of Albert gripping a stuffed alligator in its teeth and resting his chin on a stack of pillows.

Cavallaro has hired a lawyer in hopes of getting Albert back, and his efforts are being backed by his own neighbors as well as strangers across social media. An online petition has been signed by more than 120,000 people and fans have created "Free Albert" T-shirts and buttons.

A friend even penned a song for the cause: "Oh Albert, please come home," the pal sings while strumming a guitar in a video posted to Facebook.

Cavallaro has lived with Albert for more than half of his life after buying the alligator at an Ohio reptile show when it was two months old and considers him an "emotional support animal."

He spent $120,000 on a custom addition to his house designed around Albert, complete with heated floors, a filtering indoor pond with a waterfall and spa jet, tropical plants and a bar.

Tony Cavallaro shows photos of his alligator, Albert, on March 19, 2024, in Hamburg, N.Y.
Carolyn Thompson / AP
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AP
Tony Cavallaro shows photos of his alligator, Albert, on March 19, 2024, in Hamburg, N.Y.

Now it's hard to enter the space, Cavallaro said, gathering up the stack of Albert's pillows he said had been tossed aside by the officers and returning them to the carpet where the alligator liked to lay.

"It's so empty," said Cavallaro, who wasn't told where the alligator was taken.

Cavallaro says he let people pet the alligator

Cavallaro acknowledges that acquaintances and their children have also been up close and personal with Albert, posing for pictures and petting him, occasionally getting in the water. But he says Albert is so affectionate that he hurries to the side of the pool to greet Cavallaro's 84-year-old mother when she visits. She used to watch Albert when Cavallaro went on vacation, he said.

"She would sit in his room with him and read with him laying his head on her foot," he said.

The license became an issue following a change in regulations for possessing dangerous animals adopted by the Department of Environmental Conservation in 2020. After Cavallaro's license expired in 2021, he failed to bring the holding area into compliance to ensure the alligator did not pose a danger to the public, the agency said.

Cavallaro said he unsuccessfully sought clarification to renew the license and believes he should have been grandfathered in to the old regulations.

Owning Albert is the culmination of a lifelong interest in reptiles, said Cavallaro, who has previously owned caimans, similar to an alligator, a monitor and a menagerie of lizards.

"It's just a fascination. I love these animals and learned a lot about them," he said.

He disputes the DEC's claim that Albert has "numerous health-related issues, including blindness in both eyes and spinal complications."

The alligator, who subsists on a diet of raw chicken and pork chops supplemented by vitamins, is under the care of a veterinarian, including for cataracts, but Cavallaro said he is not blind. He said there was nothing wrong with the alligator's spine before it was carried away.

DEC officials declined to say where Albert is being kept. In a statement, the agency said only that he's with "a licensed caretaker who will house and care for the animal until it can be properly transported for permanent care."

It's unknown how many alligators are kept as pets in the U.S., but wildlife officials periodically report being called to rescue abandoned reptiles from parks and creeks. Officials believe a lethargic 4-foot alligator found in Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn in February 2023 was likely an abandoned pet.

In Buffalo in 2014, animal control officers spent days trying to retrieve a caiman from a creek, eventually succeeding.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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