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Urbana farm provides new home for alligator

Fish farm owner would like to have up to 12 gators.

Fluffy, a 48-inch alligator with a taste for trout, has more room to roam after his owner put the finishing touches on a new habitat at the Urbana aquafarm where he’s raised.

The new indoor and outdoor habitat was specially built to comply with recent Ohio laws regulating exotic animals, and, if it ever becomes legal, provides enough space for about a dozen full-grown alligators, said Dave Smith, owner of Freshwater Farms of Ohio.

Farming alligators isn’t legal in Ohio now, but it’s common throughout the deep south. Smith said he’ll be ready to raise them if it’s ever permitted locally. The state clamped down on ownership of exotic animals after more than 50 wild animals were released from a Zanesville property in 2011, and deputies killed 49 of the animals to prevent them from escaping into that community. A new state law detailing how the animals must be raised takes full effect early next year.

Fluffy doesn’t look menacing, but his new habitat includes a large mesh fence, glass panels, and a metal barrier to prevent the animal from digging out from under the enclosure.

Smith said he has to be cautious around the animal, but he joked Fluffy is spoiled. When she first arrived, she’d eat any fish she was given. But she developed a taste for a the trout the aquafarm specializes in.

“She’s spit out the other fish and only eats the trout,” Smith said.

Although its illegal to farm them in Ohio now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lists alligators as an aquaculture species, and Smith said he’d consider adding a few more alligators to the farm if it becomes possible. The farm already raises rainbow trout, sturgeon, perch, shrimp and other species.

Fluffy arrived at Freshwater Farms in 2010 when Champaign County Sheriff’s deputies and wildlife officers captured it near a pond in the 1700 block of Ohio 29 West. The alligator was apparently a pet that was abandoned when it became too large.

The farm will host its annual Ohio Fish and Shrimp Festival on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, giving residents a chance to see Fluffy’s new home.

Although it would be rare, raising alligators on an Ohio farm isn’t impossible, said Jimmy Avery, director of the USDA Southern Regional Aquaculture Center.

“They can be raised indoors essentially anywhere as long as the temperature is high enough,” Avery said.

Most of the farms in the U.S. now are in states like Louisiana, Florida and Georgia. The price farmers can get for the meat and the skin vary from year to year.

“The primary market is the skin,” Avery said. “We are growing those animals for the pelt.”

With a small number of alligators, Smith said it’s unlikely he’d farm the alligators for either meat or their skin, but might find other uses, such as using them to help eliminate dead animals from area chicken farms instead of incinerating them.

If alligators can be raised in Idaho, it’s possible in Urbana, Ohio said Leo Ray, who previously raised hundreds of alligators on his farm in Buhl, Idaho, near the Snake River. A natural hot spring near his Fish Processors Inc. business helped heat the alligators’ habitat.

He eventually stopped raising the animals on a large scale when he discovered they can carry the West Nile Virus. But in some ways, he said colder states like Ohio can be an ideal place to farm alligators, because it’s too cold for them to survive for long and damage the local ecosystem if they escape.

On his farm, he used the the leftovers from the fish he harvested to feed the gators, then processed the animals for their meat and pelts. He said alligator meat now sells for about $9 a pound and is often sold in restaurants as an appetizer to curious diners.

Just because they’re not common doesn’t mean raising them can’t be done, Ray said.

“There are so many things we could be raising in addition to our standard crops,” Ray said.

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