HUMBOLDT PARK — Exactly when the Humboldt Park alligator will be caught — and what condition it will be in when found — is anyone’s guess at this point.
But one thing is for certain: Chicago is obsessed with Alligator Bob.
The volunteer leading the hunt for the elusive reptile was dispatched to the scene early Tuesday after Block Club Chicago first reported that witnesses spotted a four- to five-foot alligator or crocodile in the Humboldt Park lagoon. He’s been searching the waters day and night ever since.
What reporters and locals quickly learned on that first day was Alligator Bob, though apparently skilled at catching wayward reptiles (he’s caught 17 out of 18 gators in his career), had some serious work ahead of him.
“Catching him is the equivalent of a fisherman coming out here and saying catch me a blue gill. Anybody can catch a blue gill, but I want the blue gill with the purple gill. Find me that one. There’s the problem here. I keep telling people it’s like looking for a baseball bat that’s floating in the water some place that can submerge every time you look at it.”
Once the story exploded, hundreds of onlookers descended on the park to catch a glimpse of the gator. TV news shined massive lights on the lagoon. Helicopters circled overhead. On Wednesday night, hundreds more people gathered at the boathouse for salsa night. The ongoing commotion, Bob said, is hurting his chances of catching the animal.
But, when a Block Club reporter asked if the gator would be scared by the jazz event planned for Friday night, Bob replied like he normally does: with a hint of snark.
“That we have to ask him. We’ll find out when we catch it. We’ll bring it to animal control and we’ll spin the dial and find what [music] it likes and doesn’t like.”
The commotion isn’t the only thing that’s making the hunt difficult. Alligators, Bob said, can hold their breath for several hours. They can also go up to two weeks without getting hungry and they swim fast, he said.
Bob has all kinds of alligator facts at the ready.
“They’re beautiful animals. They’ve been around for 300 million years and they’re still here today. The only big difference is they went from five toes on the front and five toenails to now they only have four toenails. They don’t have toenails on their one [toe]. And that’s the same with their hind feet. They used to have four toes. Now only three of them have claws. Kind of like human beings. Eventually we’ll lose our pinkies.”
Though alligators are considered dangerous predators, Bob insists in both conversations with reporters and locals that there’s virtually zero risk of the Humboldt Park gator jumping out and attacking anyone standing on one of the piers or on the perimeter of the lagoon.
“Everybody assumes alligators are going to attack. Alligators are scared out of their minds. …Look at all of these people screaming and yelling, ‘Oh my god it’s going to attack my dog.’ A 10-foot alligator wouldn’t even think about grabbing that dog,” Bob said, gesturing to a large white dog on the pier. “It’s too big.”
“You run away from a 12-14 foot alligator, yeah, but even those you see at golf courses in Florida. They don’t bother people. They walk around and they go to the next pond.”
Experts presume someone keeping the alligator as a pet dumped it in the inland lagoon. Bob has made his feelings about the dumper clear: He’s not a fan.
“I’m going to be mean, and I’m going to call the person who did it ignorant and stupid. You should’ve never had the animal in the first place because they are illegal in Illinois. You need a permit for them first. … These things get to 10-12 feet long. And they live 70-80 years just like a human being. And what do you do with that? That’s something you have to realize. Your child turns 21 — 18 in some states — you can legally kick them out the door. They’re on their own. When your gator turns 21, you’re stuck with them for the next 50, 60 years.”
It is illegal to own an alligator in Illinois under both the criminal code and the Humane Care for Animals Act. And dumping an illegal pet is an additional crime. Penalties can range from a stiff fine all the way to jail time.
A person can legally keep an alligator only if they have a special-use permit. A permit is issued if the keeper can prove they are using the alligator for educational programs.
“It’s a permit, not a drivers license. It doesn’t say you can keep an alligator and keep getting new ones. … Your animal is deeded to you.”
Bob, a Bridgeport native, has about 40 years of volunteer experience working with reptiles for groups like the Chicago Herpetological Society. But Bob’s love of reptiles stretches back much further than that.
“We’d go down to the Florida Keys on our Christmas vacation. My father was a scuba diver from World War II. He was a member of the Chicago Underwater Seaman, which was the first dive club in Chicago. We would go down to the Florida Keys to go diving over Christmas because he wanted to dive. You have to go through the everglades. If you go through the everglades in the ’60s, there were no laws, rules governing anything you picked up on the side of the road, so I did.”
Over the last few days, Bob has only left the lagoon for brief stretches of time to get a little bit of rest, take a shower or grab a bite to eat. Bob said he lives on just four hours of sleep a night.
“Einstein had a theory. You sit up in a wooden chair, get comfortable sitting upright, hold a pencil in your hand. When the pencil falls out of your hand, hits the wooden floor below you, go back to work because you’ve gone through your deepest REM sleep. You know what? It works.”
Oh, and we asked him about the Alligator Bob nickname.
Bob said when he rescued an alligator from the Chicago River in 2008 an ABC7 reporter dubbed him Alligator Bob and that’s the origin story. Folks with Chicago Animal Control told Block Club he doesn’t really go by Alligator Bob, though. One said he actually goes by Bob The Snake Man.
Bob only gives out his first name, in part, so people don’t inundate him with alligator adoptions. But it’s also because he doesn’t want reporters on his doorstep disturbing his wife, his high school sweetheart.
“If you want to call me Alligator Bob. … call me what you want.”
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit newsroom covering Chicago’s neighbrhoods. Every dime we make funds our reporting.
GATOR WATCH 2019 COVERAGE
GATOR WATCH SWAG
Yes, we made shirts to commemorate this very Chicago news story. Designed by local artist Ryan Duggan, get your limited-edition tote and t-shirt here while supplies last.
All proceeds will benefit Block Club Chicago, an independent, nonprofit neighborhood newsroom.