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Reggie the gator makes zoo debut

Nearly 150 well-wishers turn out for the celebrated reptile, who made headlines by eluding capture at his Lake Machado home.

August 10, 2007|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

Reggie the alligator -- last seen in public in May, when he was captured at a Harbor City lake -- made his debut at the Los Angeles Zoo on Thursday, with many of his fans there to cheer him on.

Nearly 150 people, many decked out in alligator hats and Reggie T-shirts, crowded around his enclosure awaiting the big event, craning for a view over a line of news cameras. Many visitors had arrived from Harbor City on buses arranged by City Councilwoman Janice Hahn.

Officials said the event was a fitting end to Reggie's saga, which began in 2005 when he was dumped by his owners into Lake Machado.

After an extended stay marked by expensive attempts at capture, the urban alligator was caught and sent to the zoo via motorcade, whose progress was followed live on television.

"Someone put him in a lake and now he's here," said Isaiah Hernandez, 4, who wore a "Welcome Reggie" pin and had his face painted green. "I really like alligators. When I grow up, I'll be a croc hunter."

As onlookers chanted "We want Reggie," about a dozen firefighters and zookeepers gently lowered the alligator into his open-air habitat, unwrapped a towel from his eyes and a restraint from his jaw, and then retreated to safety.

Amid cheers and applause, Reggie crawled languidly into the water and promptly hid behind a large rock. His caretakers said he is still adjusting to his new home.

"He's kind of skittish, a little standoffish and doesn't know if he's been released into a safe environment," said Ian Recchio, one of Reggie's handlers. "He tends to hiss a lot."

Officials said the gator is eating well -- 3 pounds of raw meat once a week -- and shows no signs of the parasites or diseases that often afflict alligators. Recchio said Reggie will probably stay a bachelor.

Reggie is 7 1/2 feet long and weighs nearly 120 pounds, but he could grow to 10 feet and more than 300 pounds, zoo director John Lewis said.

Reggie is about 8 years old, Lewis guessed. Recchio pegged Reggie's age at 12 years, noting that alligators can live up to 80 years.

The zoo's six other American alligators and two Chinese ones are being exhibited elsewhere for safety reasons, because they are all much larger or smaller than the newcomer, Lewis said.

First spotted in Lake Machado in August 2005, Reggie was allegedly released by owners who considered him too large to keep as an exotic pet.

Two men -- former Los Angeles Police Officer Todd Natow and his friend Anthony Brewer -- were arrested and charged in the dumping.

Brewer pleaded no contest to a state wildlife law violation and was sentenced to probation. Natow has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges.

The effort to capture Reggie -- dubbed "the world-famous fugitive alligator" by officials -- was marked by colorful figures and a $200,000 bill, which Hahn said Brewer and Natow should pay.

A local herpetologist tried a chicken leg tied to a string, and alligator wrestler Jay Young tried a fishing net.

Thomas "T-Bone" Quinn, a Hurricane Katrina refugee, attempted to wrangle Reggie before being arrested on parole violations.

Even the late Steve Irwin, of "Crocodile Hunter" fame, couldn't ensnare the elusive reptile.

On May 24, Recchio and several other city employees snared the gator with a dog-catching pole when he ventured onto land. Recchio said the capture took less than 10 minutes.

Once Reggie was captured, reptile stores and gator parks jostled for a chance to take him in.

Caretakers of Knut the polar bear, Germany's resident animal sensation, offered advice for handling Reggie's stardom, which has spawned two children's books, "Save Reggie" T-shirts and, at the zoo, a slew of other Reggie merchandise. Harbor City College named Reggie its assistant mascot.

"He caught everyone's attention and fantasy and affection," Hahn said.

"If he'd surfaced in Florida, it would have been like seeing an average dog. But here, in the land of stars and celebrities, it has been a phenomenon."

At the zoo, Reggie will live "in infamy in a luxury suite" that includes shade, vegetation, a pond and a waterfall to stir up the filtered water, officials said. A nearby placard explains Reggie's story and species in English and Spanish.

The new habitat is a far cry from Lake Machado, which many experts said is unsanitary and unhealthful for alligators, which are not native to Southern California.

"Reggie's story is a good example of why people should be careful about exotic pets," Lewis said. "The threat was not necessarily to him, but to the local flora and fauna that was not adapted to his presence."

Lewis said the zoo initially was reluctant to take Reggie in because the facility might not have had room for another alligator.

After pressure from Hahn, the zoo relented.

"It made sense because he's so important to so many people," Lewis said.

"He's staying here permanently, and that's not predicated on his popularity."

But Reggie could help boost the zoo's revenue and introduce first-time visitors, Hahn said.

"Everybody felt kind of sorry for him and some started rooting for him," she said. "Reggie uplifted everybody."

Since Reggie first surfaced in 2005, Carson resident Julie Ronquillo, 58, often visited Lake Machado hoping to get a glimpse of him.

She went to the zoo Thursday to check up on her favorite reptile. Her nephew, Jesse Lum, celebrating his 12th birthday, said his gift was a visit to Reggie.

"We wanted to make sure he's OK," Ronquillo said. "At the lake, we wanted people to leave him alone. He looked so scared, poor guy. But he's managed to make it over all these years."

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tiffany.hsu@latime.com

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