By Tony Parra
Portales residents and school children won’t have to go across the country to the Florida swamps to see an alligator. They can just travel across the city and the campus of Eastern New Mexico University.
The Caiman crocodylus, a South American alligator, will be living in the Natural History Museum on the ENMU campus, starting in the fall. Marvin Lutnesky, biology department chair and director of the museum, said he hopes to have the Caiman crocodylus in his display by Friday.
Lutnesky said the museum staff is searching for an artist to draw a tropical mural in the display before the Caiman moves into the display. He said the 3 1/2 foot Caiman can grow up to eight feet and the display can accommodate the growth.
The display is made of walnut and oak with double pane glass windows, similar to windshield glass. The interior dimensions of the display area are 16.5 feet long by 9.5 feet deep in roughly a triangular shape with a pond with the dimensions of 10 feet by 5 feet and 18 inches deep. The Caiman can wander around next to the pond for viewers to see him.
The pond holds approximately 600 gallons of water with pipes underneath and heating units to keep the water warm.
“I’m very appreciative of the work they put into building the display,” Lutnesky said. “Once workers at the Physical Plant knew it was for the kids, they put a lot of effort into the display.”
Steps next to the display were created so children can get a better view of the Caiman.
The Caiman was donated to the museum exhibit about a year ago. Lutnesky said he doesn’t know much about the history of the reptile and that’s one of the reasons it’s hard to determine the age. According to Lutnesky, the age can’t be determined merely by size because temperature and surroundings affect its growth.
“Of what I know, it was living in a garage in Lubbock,” Lutnesky said. “I imagine it outgrew its surroundings and needed a place to stay. Sometimes people buy them as pets and can no longer raise them, especially because of the Caiman’s aggressive behavior.”
Huie Brown, a science technician, has been handling the Caiman and said he’ll be glad once it’s in the display. Brown warms up chicken, beef and pork and feeds it to the Caiman two to three times a week.
“This has been a learning experience for me,” Brown said. “At first I thought to myself, ‘I don’t remember this being in my job description.’
“You have to be careful around it. It’s aggressive. It’s one of the top predators in it’s environment.”
Lutnesky said he and Brown will move the 3 1/2 foot Caiman from a water tank in a research room behind the Science Building to the museum. He said the Caiman will be carried with a leash keeping its snout shut.
The Caiman hissed on Wednesday to show its discontent for any people who approached it.
“When we first got it, it just crawled around,” Lutnesky said. “There are times now when I have a foot stool as a shield and it jumps into it when we are draining the tank. It’s aggression shows that it’s healthy.”
Lutnesky said the reptile is one of the features brought in to attract people to the museum. Lutnesky said a long-nose Gar was caught in the Pecos River in Fort Sumner and is swimming in one of the tanks. Lutnesky said the fish is normally found in southern New Mexico waters.
The Gar is an ancient fish with a needle-like nose, armor scales, and long body. The aggressive fish also has sharp teeth. A snapping turtle is also on display at the museum and through a naming contest was given the name Turlock.
According to Lutnesky, there will also be a naming contest for the Caiman once it is in the display.