Burgettstown couple keeps alligator as pet

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BURGETTSTOWN – Jackie is not your average house pet. She’s about five feet long, with stubby legs and a powerful tail.


Originally a Southern gal bred in marshes and swamps, she’s not native to these parts. But now that she’s here, she likes relaxing in her baby pool and chomping on pork chops.


Have you guessed it yet? She’s an American alligator.


Jackie’s owners, Veronica and Randy Thomas of Burgettstown, have kept her as a pet for about 10 years without incident until this month, when an anonymous caller complained to Washington Area Humane Society.


However, the humane officer found no safety issues, and Jackie likely will be permitted to live out the rest of her reptile days in Smith Township.


The Thomases live on Florence Avenue, which is split between Smith Township and Burgettstown Borough. While Smith Township currently has no ordinance forbidding exotic animals, Burgettstown Borough does.


Smith Township’s solicitor is currently drafting an ordinance on pets and exotic animals, but Veronica Thomas said she was told by the township Jackie would likely be “grandfathered” into the ordinance and permitted to stay.


“We’re going to care for her,” Thomas said. “We love her, even though she can be hissy.”


Thomas said she and her husband purchased what they thought was a baby caiman – a smaller relative of the alligator – from a pet show in the South Hills. But when Jackie kept growing and growing, they learned within a year that she was actually an American alligator.


They asked a zoo to take Jackie, but the zoo refused. And here they are now.


“We did our damndest to find a good home, and we could not,” Thomas said. “We’re not going to just toss her out like an old, rotten rag.”


Jackie is kept in a cage indoors during the cold seasons, and in the summer, her cage is placed in a baby pool in their yard so she can cool off. Thomas said they regularly wash her in their shower and scratch her neck, and she responds with enraptured hisses.


“Believe it or not, she’s friendly – to men,” Thomas said. Around women, she tends to get territorial.


Thomas said she has never bitten or harmed anyone, and she is well-contained and well-fed. Jackie has a healthy appetite and likes to eat fish, pork chops, hot dogs, steak and chicken.


Thomas said many neighbors like to visit Jackie, and she received only two complaints. About five years ago, she said the state Game Commission, township police and an animal control officer came to her house to investigate. They did not find any problems, but “they all got a bunch of kicks and giggles out of it.”


Now that it has happened twice, Thomas believes she is being harassed for her unorthodox pet choice. She wants to press charges, but the humane society is not permitted to release the complainant’s name.


Logan Wade, humane officer, said Jackie is healthy and has adequate living conditions.


“It was a first for me,” Wade said of responding to the Washington Area Humane Society’s first and only exotic animal complaint in recent history.


“It caught me off guard, and I can understand why residents would be concerned, but from all my research and everything, she is within (township code).”


Michael Cruny, associate attorney at Sweat Law Offices, said Solicitor Gary Sweat is starting the process of writing an ordinance pertaining not just to exotic animals, but also permitted pets in general. He said the grandfather clause usually applies to buildings and vehicles, but a pet alligator could conceivably be exempted from township ordinance if a new ordinance is passed.


Township Chairman Thomas Schilinski said the board’s push for a new pet ordinance was prompted not by the alligator, but by resident complaints about cats and chickens.


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