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After alligator 'sighting,' animal control officer reflects on exotic cases
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After alligator 'sighting,' animal control officer reflects on exotic cases

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Though it appears alligators don’t inhabit local waterways, Chief Animal Control Officer Galen Barrett said he’s heard his fair share of animal tales and dealt with a handful of strange encounters during his 22-year tenure with the City of Council Bluffs.

Like the time, about 17 years ago, when a black bear cub escaped its enclosure and local authorities were forced to take action. Or the time a Canada lynx was found in a Bluffs home.

Then, there was that day more than a decade ago when Barrett was phoned about a group of emus running loose through town.

“And by golly, it was true,” he said. “Ironically, they (the owners) had a formal permit for their particular property, and the birds had just gotten loose. They were actually legal.”

The Nonpareil spoke with Barrett the week following a claim — which spread like wildfire on social media — that several alligators were spotted in shallow water by a pair of kayakers at Big Lake Park.

The original Facebook post, accompanied with two low-resolution photos, generated more than 850 shares.

An investigation conducted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources yielded expected results — no gators. A follow-up email conversation with Alex Murphy, director of communications with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, confirmed the hunt for the toothy creatures is finished.

“We’ve had no further reports of this so our staff has not gone back to look, so I guess it’s considered closed,” Murphy said of the case.

Andrew O’Dell of Council Bluffs told the Nonpareil he saw “six or seven” total alligators — including a bigger mother gator. A Florida native, O’Dell firmly said last week he knows what an alligator looks like.

“I was born and raised in Florida, and I wrestled gators my whole entire life when I was growing up,” he said. “And there are logs out there, quite a few railroad ties and a whole bunch of other debris out there … But I know the difference between a turtle and a log and a gator and a frog and a fish.”

Barrett said he was present at Big Lake Park the day following the alleged sighting and ran into a DNR conservation officer on site. After inspecting the area, Barrett said he and the officer spoke.

It was determined that the “alligators” were fish swimming close to the surface, or stationary logs. The latter, Barrett said, is exactly what one of the grainy Facebook photos revealed.

“You know, I will never say ‘never’ — anything is possible,” Barrett said. “Although, a lot of times, we come across complaints or information that is hard to believe, out of the norm, I should say. This was one of those times …

“We were able to recreate the photograph that was taken and it turns out, it was a stump that was out there. But from the vantage point that he was — or that the photo was taken — I can absolutely see the confusion or misidentification, absolutely.”

Throughout the years, Barrett said his office has received numerous calls referencing mountain lion and bobcat sightings. Though Barrett said he’s seen bobcats, he still hasn’t caught a glimpse of an elusive cougar.

But, he said there’s no doubt there’s the potential for them to be in the area.

“Perfect habitat, plenty of food, plenty of water, they absolutely could live here,” he said.

Non-native creatures, though, are from time to time found in Bluffs homes. Nothing quite as extreme as some of the exotic big cats featured in this year’s Netflix hit docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” but still not your run-of-the-mill house pets.

Often, this happens in the form of pythons or boa constrictors. Per city code, Barrett said all venomous and constricting snakes are forbidden. And even if somebody was able to obtain a federal exotic animal permit to house something more outlandish, it would still likely be in violation of local and state law.

“Even if you had the proper permit, I can’t say that it would be legal to have here in Council Bluffs or the State of Iowa,” he said, referencing certain exotics. “The State of Iowa prohibits the harboring of several different animals that are considered — and I’m using air quotes — dangerous.

“And the City of Council Bluffs has ordinances against several animals that are called ‘dangerous per-se.’”

While his day-to-day job isn’t dealing with exotic animal complaints, chasing emus or wrangling up bear cubs, Barrett said it’s certainly an occupational perk.

“I love these things when it comes to wildlife and the exotics,” Barrett said. “My degree is in wildlife biology, so yeah, I thrive on that stuff. I always look forward to those unusual ones.”

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