The baby alligators were cute little critters, each roughly the size of a pencil, when a Colorado man sold them out of a trailer in the parking lot of the Kennett Eagles Club in southeast Missouri.
Fourteen months later, Kennett authorities are worried about what's become of those animals. "Now they've grown and they're not cute anymore," Humane Department officer Tina Petix said. "They're trying to bite people."
So Petix is on a gator hunt, hoping to convince any owners that small-town Missouri life is neither good for the reptile nor the people and pets it may encounter. So far, three alligators have been located and removed. One woman was keeping two as pets, often in a backyard next to a home where 3-year-old twins live. The other nearly snapped off its owner's hand.
Petix has no idea how many gators Ken Henderson sold in January and February 2011, when he set up a makeshift shop and sold exotic creatures out of his trailer.
A nearly catastrophic fire in February 2011 ended his stay. Police believe one of the animals kicked over a heat lamp, setting the trailer ablaze. Henderson and rescuers scurried to save the creatures, including iguanas, alligators and a 13-foot python.
"It was like Noah's Ark," Petix recalled.
Henderson was treated for burns, and some of the animals were injured and turned over to animal rescue groups.
But the extended fallout from the sale of the alligators is less certain. Petix also doesn't know how many survived or are even still in Kennett, a town with laws governing exotic pets, including a ban on alligators.
American alligators are native to Florida, Louisiana and other southern states, and the closest they come to Missouri in the wild is Arkansas. Winters are simply too cold, said Jeff Ettling, curator of herpetology and aquatics at the St. Louis Zoo.
Experts say alligators also are not suited to be pets, in part because they're expensive to feed. Baby gators eat crickets and other bugs, but a 1-year-old gator needs several pounds of meat each day.
And, of course, there's the inherent danger -- alligators will eat fish and snakes, but also pets or "anything they can swallow," Ettling said, and gators often have a nasty attitude.
"As they grow in size, their disposition changes," Ettling said. "Like a lion cub as it gets big, it's got wild instincts."
Petix's alligator amnesty yielded immediate results last week when a woman brought in a 34-inch gator that her father had purchased from Henderson for her teenage son.