by Lisa Ladd-Wilson
It's hard to say exactly when the Department of Fish and Game knew it had an unusual case on its hands. Was it in mid-November, when an anonymous caller contacted CalTIP -- Californians Turn In Poachers -- and reported two alligators living in Ferndale?
Or was it when Fish and Game wardens discovered the alligators were owned by a 77-year-old grandmother of 30?
Patrol Lt. Jerry Collins wasn't one of those wardens, but he soon became involved with Verdie Stone and her alligators. And what started as a pre-Thanksgiving confiscation turned into a holiday season shopping trip, with two toothy gifts looking for a home.
Collins has seized his share of illegally kept animals in his 23 years with Fish and Game, and there were a few things that flagged this case as different. For one thing, the alligators, nearing 3 feet in length, weren't abused or ill, as are many of the exotic-animals-as-conversation-pieces that Collins sees. "They seem to be healthy," Collins said over the phone.
For another, the perpetrator was a very nice great-grandmother who calls just about everyone "dear" or "darling" and loves to tell stories -- especially stories about growing up in Tulsa, Okla., where she spent her girlhood collecting snakes, small mammals and lizards that folks in those parts call "mountain boomers."
And, although Collins didn't mention it, there's also the fact that Verdie Stone breaks into tears when she talks about losing Croc and Baby.
"By law we could immediately seize and dispatch (the alligators)," Collins said, and file criminal charges against Stone.
"Normally, in most cases, we do."
But most cases don't revolve around old ladies who have an alligator swimming in the bathtub and another one curled under the wood-burning stove.
"I don't mind being called old, but I hate being called elderly," Stone said as she sat in the living room of her Market Street house on a gray December afternoon.
"It makes me feel like I got one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave."
Stone said she didn't know it was illegal to own alligators in California until Fish and Game wardens knocked on her door a little over a month ago.
"They showed up at the door and asked if we had alligators," said Verdie's son Ron, who also lives at the house. "We said yeah, and got (the alligators) and showed 'em to them."
And that's how, after four years of Crocodylidae companionship, Verdie Stone learned her pets were illegal and would have to go.
The problem was, nobody but Stone wanted them.
The law gives Fish and Game the authority to seize illegal animals immediately. In this case, however, Collins decided to try to find a new home for Croc and Baby. And since the alligators were being well cared for, he let them stay at the Stone house while he searched.
"I contacted several zoos throughout the state," Collins said, "but there's not a high demand for alligators." At one point, an animal park in Oregon seemed ready to take Croc and Baby, but that solution dissolved when the park's owner required a health certificate for the alligators and refused to pay for the shipping.
"I'm on a fixed income. I can't afford that," Verdie Stone said (although she didn't know how much it would cost).
The Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka didn't want them, and neither did Humboldt State University's Natural History Museum in Arcata (although it, too, joined in the search for an alligator abode).
On this December day, the alligators' fate was still uncertain. Ron pulled Baby out from behind the potbellied stove, and Verdie fished Croc out from the bathtub, drying him off with a towel on the way to the living room.
"Most people are raised with the idea that reptiles are mean," she said, putting Croc, the larger of the two reptiles, down on the carpet for a photo session. She said she had hoped to take the alligators to Freshwater School, which some of her grandchildren attend, for a show-and-tell some day.
"Children need to be taught about what will hurt them and what won't," she said.
Has Verdie ever been bit by Croc or Baby? Once, she said, by
"It was my own fault. I wasn't being careful, and he thought my thumb was a pinky rat."
Pinky rats, pinky mice and fish. That's a typical meal for Croc and Baby, who eat about every three weeks or so. "Pinky" means baby, and the two alligators like their food alive and kicking.
"I know it sounds cruel, but the good Lord made it so everyone has something to eat," Verdie said with a hearty laugh. "And if you've ever been bit by a rat, it don't tear you up too much" to see it eaten.
Verdie said she bought the alligators from two boys in Vacaville, a town she once lived in and was revisiting four years ago. The boys had tried unsuccessfully to sell the animals to a pet store, and she heard them say they were going to let the alligators loose in a creek.
"I was shocked. I knew kids fished in that creek," she said. "Half the kids in Vacaville knew about this 'hideaway.'"
Her head filled with images of Vacaville children being eaten
by alligators, and Verdie paid the boys $50 each for the tiny
reptiles. She'd never owned alligators before, she said, but she
had raised snakes, iguanas, a porcupine and even a coatimundi.
How tough could alligators be?
Ron said Croc and Baby were thin and ill-looking when his mother brought them home to Ferndale. She kept them warm, let them swim in the bathtub, and put them on the pinky-rodent-and-fish diet.
"The only reason they're alive is because of her," Ron said.
Verdie isn't sure if the alligators are fond of her, or if
they even know the difference between her and a stranger, but
she knows she loves them.
"You keep something long enough and it's like a dog or a cat. You get attached to it," she said, stroking Baby's abdomen and putting her/him into a sort of alligator trance.
"I know they have to go, but I just want to be sure they're not going to be " -- she tried to say "killed," and her eyes welled up -- " disposed of."
Jerry Collins didn't want to kill Verdie's alligators, either. Unable to find an appropriate home for Croc and Baby, he called her and offered a solution: The Department of Fish and Game would take Croc and Baby, and the two reptiles would be used "for law enforcement purposes," he said. Collins would pick them up and deliver them down to Sacramento himself.
"I'm not really at liberty to say," Collins said when asked for a less cryptic explanation of the alligators' future. "Most certainly, they will be taken good care of. They won't be used in research, they won't be killed."
Verdie Stone wanted more information, too, but she said she was satisfied.
"I told him I thought he was telling me the truth," she said over the telephone, "and he said that indeed he was."
And that would have been the end of the story of the alligators of Ferndale.
But it wasn't. On Dec. 15, just days before Collins was to pick up the alligators for the trip south, Verdie Stone heard a thrashing in the bathtub. She ran into the bathroom to find the smaller Baby firmly in Croc's grip.
"He wouldn't turn him loose, dear," Verdie reported over the phone, near tears. "I had to thump him a bit, just to get him to let go."
She and Ron carried the wounded Baby out to the living room. The alligator had been bitten in several places and was bleeding a bit from the jaw. The next morning, Verdie found Baby curled up under the potbellied stove, dead.
"I was just sick," she said.
When Collins showed up a day later, she handed him Baby's body. They had some difficulty putting the increasingly aggressive Croc in his traveling cage.
Despite Baby's demise, Verdie still was sad to see Croc go.
"He is getting ornery, bless his heart, and in a year I wouldn't be able to handle him," she said, but she would have kept him if the law allowed it.
But Croc's behavior may have underscored the reasons the law doesn't allow such pets.
"He is an aggressive little critter," Collins said.
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