Hunting season for most critters isn't until fall, but not in Kennett, Missouri, down in the Bootheel, where the citizenry is currently on the lookout for alligators.
"We've had reports of sightings in small lakes," says Sergeant Craig Crow of the Kennett Police Department. Only one has been caught so far, though, a three-footer trapped last week and sent to a federal wildlife refuge in Cape Girardeau.
But where did these gators come from? Is it a sign of global warning? Or maybe the apocalypse? Or a plague visited on the good people of Kennett?
Crow traces the presence of gators in Kennett back a few years, to when a man from Florida drove into town in a van filled with gators, pythons and other exotic reptiles. He so impressed people with his six-foot pet alligators that they decided they wanted little hatchlings of their own, even though owning an alligator is, technically, illegal in Kennett.
"We think he sold as many as 50," Crow says. "People think they're going to be pets. They think they can train them like a dog. People will buy anything, I guess. It's neat until you have to take care of it."
It's been several years since the alligator-seller and his van skipped town. The gators that were babies then have grown to be three feet long. And it turns out they are not trainable, like dogs.
"A gator works mainly on instinct," Crow explains, "not reasoning. It's not a pet I'd like to have. Three feet long is a good size. It can hurt your hand."
(For the record, Crow has never seen a gator living in a bathtub. He has, however, seen one in a 50-gallon aquarium.)
But instead of reporting their intractable pets to animal control, frustrated gator-owners have been panicking and turning the reptiles loose. Although Missouri is not their natural climate, the summers are warm enough for them, and Crow guesses they'll be able to survive in the wild until the first frost.
Which is a really long time from now.
Kennett's animal control is offering amnesty for all alligator-owners. "We're hoping people will bring them in instead of turning them loose," says Crow. "I hope any more won't get out."
He's still mystified over his fellow citizens' desire to adopt alligators. "We've got plenty of dogs and cats in our shelters. I don't understand."
But he'd better watch out -- early springtime is gator mating season.