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Rustlers Are Hired to Net Rogue Gator

Officials believe someone dumped the reptile in a Harbor City lake. Spotting it has become a spectator sport.

August 17, 2005|Jessica Gresko | Times Staff Writer

For five days now, the alligator lurking in a lake in the middle of Harbor City has been locked in a standoff with authorities.

Park rangers hoped the wayward, 7-foot alligator could be caught when it roamed on shore. But the creature has proven elusive, swimming just below the surface -- often with only its piercing eyes visible, like something out of "Crocodile Hunter."

So on Tuesday, officials flew in two alligator rustlers from Colorado to finish the job. Jay Young, dressed in a black tank top, brown leather cowboy hat and an alligator tooth necklace, surveyed the lake and concluded the alligator was hiding in a cove.

Young caught a glimpse of the gator on land and followed it into the lake before emerging to say he needed a big net. "He saw us coming, so he went under," said Young, who helps run the Colorado Gator Farm and Reptile Park in Mosca, Colo.

So Young, 31, and his partner were off to San Pedro to pick up a 500-foot heavy-duty fishing net that he predicted would trap the alligator. Officials hope Young will snare the gator sometime tonight -- but no one is placing bets against this wily creature.

Young, who was hired by Los Angeles officials at a cost of $800 a day, said he is confident he'll get the job done. "At most, I can lose a couple of fingers," he said.

The alligator has captured the imagination of people, who have come out to Lake Machado in droves, lugging binoculars, cameras, beach chairs, bags of chips and coolers of soda. On Tuesday, a crowd of more than 70 spectators gathered to watch the spectacle, with many setting up beach chairs at the lake's edge. Yellow caution tape ringed the shore, which was studded with signs warning "Unsafe! Do not enter!"

No one is sure how the alligator got there, but the general speculation is that someone raised it and dumped it in the lake when it got too big -- making the gator, nicknamed "Harbor Park Harry," an urban legend come to life.

First officials thought it was a caiman, a cousin of the alligator, but with weaker jaws. Now they believe it's an alligator. And the legend keeps growing. "It was 5 feet then, it's 5 to 10 feet now," said Michelle Price, who brought two kids to see it.

The discovery was made in the most unlikely of places: An urban park surrounded by oil refineries and office parks not far from the Harbor Freeway. Workers in the nearby Kaiser Permanente offices have started a ritual of taking their lunch breaks by the lake, hoping to catch a peek of the gator.

While spectators scanned the surface of the 53-acre lake for signs of movement, the alligator wrangler's assistants passed out copies of the Colorado Gator Gazette, the official newspaper of the group's animal refuge.

As Young and others waded into the water to set the fishing net, or puttered around in a pontoon boat, dog walkers, news camera crews and spectators milled about. The atmosphere turned festive as observers asked each other excitedly, "Have you seen it?" and "Are there more?"

Some suggested that the gator would make a nice pair of shoes, while others said it deserved a trip to Florida, where alligators are part of the landscape.

Spectators settled in for the long haul. Robert Worosher, 58, of Lomita, brought binoculars and a book. He said he wasn't making any guesses as to when the animal might be caught. "Could be hours, could be days."

Some credited the alligator with making the park a friendlier place, with park-goers swapping gator gossip, or imparting wisdom to other visitors. "Where there's a circle, I think they dive deeper," explained Ernie Lopez, 59, who comes to the park every morning to walk his two pit bulls. He said he believes one of the dogs spotted the animal last week and started barking.

Renee and Joe Orefice were back with their three daughters for a second day of gator watching. They said they saw the animal swimming around Monday. On Tuesday, they came back with chairs and a set of binoculars.

"We just wanted to see what these guys were going to do," Renee said.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes the park, arrived for an afternoon news conference.

"I have to deal with a lot of issues -- potholes, sidewalks, streets, trees -- but I never thought I would have to deal with an alligator," she said.

She joked that the creature had to be a male, because it kept crawling on shore and plunging back into the water, apparently unable to make up its mind. To the councilwoman it looked as if the reptile had "a fear of commitment."

Los Angeles Zoo officials have prepared to receive the animal, which will be quarantined for 90 days once it is captured. Russ Smith, the zoo's curator of reptiles, said it would be difficult to find the animal a home after it's captured, because many zoos already have alligators. The Los Angeles Zoo has two Chinese and two American alligators.

Young, the gator wrangler, said that he wrestles 500 to 600 alligators a year, but that he only gets bitten once or twice a year. To make his point, he revealed several scars on one of his arms.

This Lake Machado job was a difficult one, he said, because the lake is so large. "It's like chasing a needle in a haystack," Young said. "Every time you get close to the needle, it leaves at 30 miles per hour."

It is because of this cat-and-mouse game that Young said he doesn't wear shoes when pursuing alligators. "Shoes just slow you down," he said.

*

Times staff writer Monte Morin contributed to this report.

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