The chief of Suffolk County's SPCA is blaming the Internet for an unnatural migration of alligators to eastern Long Island, saying the ease with which they can be purchased probably contributes to increasing numbers found abandoned, including five in the last 10 days.
The latest turned up early Sunday, a 3-foot-long American alligator in a container outside an Applebee's restaurant in Shirley.
"We are investigating this as a criminal act," said Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.
Gross said he suspects the alligators are being bought on websites that promote the sale of "harmless reptiles," offering them for as little as $25. New owners later realize how dangerous they are and how easily an alligator can snap off a finger or kill, he said.
"They made the mistake by buying it in the first place because they thought it would be a cool thing to have, a little alligator," Gross said. "What happens when the alligator gets big? Either they have a near-death experience or an injury. They say: 'I made a mistake. I better get rid of it.'"
Gross said he also suspects the alligators are being abandoned because of recent publicity emphasizing it is a criminal act to have them anywhere in New York state. Violators may be charged with endangering the public by exposing people to a wild animal, a charge that carries a potential penalty of a year in prison. The alligators also can't survive cold temperatures.
"This is not the kind of pet you want to have. Stick to your dogs and cats and bunny rabbits," he said. "I can't imagine anyone curling up and watching TV with your alligator."
Since 2004, Gross said, the county has confiscated 60 alligators, some of them in yards, in swimming pools and a particularly feisty one along a busy road.
The latest outbreak began Sept. 28 when a 2 1/2-foot alligator weighing several pounds was found crawling in a front yard in Mastic Beach. Two more alligators were found at a supermarket parking lot in Baldwin and another was picked up at a golf course in Wading River before the discovery outside Applebee's, Gross said. The total would be six if the pet alligator removed from a Brooklyn home a week ago was included.
At Applebee's on Sunday, a woman who identified herself only as Catherine, a general manager, said she had no information to provide on the alligator.
Gross said he fears the public is not getting the message about the danger alligators pose to their owners and to the public at large.
"There's a reason why it's illegal. It's not a joke. We take this very seriously," he said, citing the danger an alligator outside a restaurant poses, especially to children. "I just want to make it very clear it's wrong, obviously not fair to the animal and its endangering the public."
Gross said the alligators, including the healthy one found Sunday, are sent to new legal homes, such as aquariums, zoos or to states where they live naturally, such as Florida.