It sounds like the stuff of urban legend. But it's true. There is an alligator in Voigt Science Hall at McKendree University.
But, no, it didn't climb up through the sewer pipes. It's there on purpose after assistant professor Ben Jellen helped the Illinois Conservation Police and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources save it in March from a home in Tamms, where it was being kept illegally.
"The owner didn't have a permit to have it, so the alligator was seized," Jellen said. "We agreed to take it because we thought it would be good for students to be able to observe an animal that they don't normally get to see up close."
At just 16 inches long, Jellen estimated the alligator is about a year old. No one knows whether it is a male or female and so far it is without a name.
Jellen is accepting submissions for suggestions until Sept. 20. The next day the winner will be announced and the author of the winning suggestion will win a free pizza. So far more than 40 different ideas have been suggested.
The nameless little gator, who certainly doesn't seem to be shy despite its diminutive size and the fact his someday fearsome teeth are now smaller than a kitten's, spends his days beneath a heat lamp in a converted cattle feed trough. It's home was fitted with a metal grate lid to keep it from making a break for the nearest pond while still allowing passers by in the hall to take a look. Inside are several rocks that give it a place to sun -- or a place to hide beneath and a few inches of water for it to swim around.
The alligator, technically an Alligator Mississippiensis or American Alligator, is fed twice a week. He eats about two ounces of raw hamburger that is placed on a rock inside its habitat. After a short swim during which it scoped out its quarry, the gator snatched its meal and swam away.
Sophomore Mary Geiger of Fairmont City said before the gator arrived at the school a couple of weeks ago, the closest she had ever been to one was the St. Louis Zoo.
Biology major Rebecca Castillo, a junior from Belleville, jumped at the chance to hold the tiny alligator.
"Right now it's just like holding a little lizard," Castillo said. "It's hard to imagine that someday it could be 16 feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds."
Jellen said by the time the reptile reaches that size he will be long gone from McKendree.
"We can only keep it as long as it can fit in his tank," Jellen said. "We already have an arrangement where after he gets too big he'll be sent to live out the rest of his days at an alligator farm in Missouri."
Jellen said the gator won't be harvested to become a fancy pair of boots or a purse. At least not until after it dies of natural causes.
Contact Reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.