Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary

A photo of the alligators in the elementary school enclosure.

Lillian Reiner

A photo of the alligators in the elementary school enclosure.

Lillian Reiner

  In Dayton Township, a 59-year-old man was kneeling in a ditch gathering minnows to use for fish bait when a 5-foot alligator lunged at him. Luckily, the man had a pistol, and he shot the animal, killing it. The alligator had escaped from a man’s backyard, where he housed two more along with a variety of other animals that are not native to Michigan. This was not an isolated incident but rather a common occurrence; people buy exotic animals and realize that they do not have the money or resources to take care of them properly. But where do these animals go when they have outstayed their welcome in residential homes?

   Located 1 hour 45 minutes southeast of Holland, in Athens, Michigan, is Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary. When I first arrived, I thought I was in the wrong place. How can nearly 200 alligators live in the middle of a cornfield? Entering through the tall green fencing is like entering a different world, and for a moment I was transported to the Florida Everglades. In fact, if you stand at the right angle atop one of the viewing platforms, the cornfields almost make it feel like you’re surrounded by marshland. 

   One of the only of its kind in the midwest, Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary takes in alligators and crocodiles from all over the country, including Florida, Minnesota and New York. For many gators, Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary is their only chance, as they would otherwise be euthanized. 

   “Our main goal is to educate people and discourage them from keeping alligators as pets,” said Critchlow. They are misunderstood animals, alligators do not view humans as prey, unless they are continually fed by humans, which is why it is very important to never feed alligators. 

   What started as a fascination with reptiles grew into something much larger for owner David Critchlow. A retired FedEx delivery man, Critchlow began realizing how often he was delivering boxes from exotic pet suppliers. He started offering to take in unwanted reptiles, beginning with snakes, when they outgrew their habitats. One day, someone asked him if he would take in an alligator, and although he had never owned one before, he couldn’t bear the thought of what would happen if he didn’t take it. Word spread that Critchlow was taking alligators, and eventually the family had enough animals to open a full-time sanctuary. 

   Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary is home to almost 200 alligators of all ages and sizes, from Godzilla, an 11 foot 30-year old gator to baby alligators that are only a half foot long. The sanctuary is divided into four enclosures, an alligator pre-school, elementary school, middle school, high school, and individual enclosures for alligators that do better on their own. The pre-school houses alligators that are 0-3 years old, and require extra care and protection from predators. The elementary school houses alligators that are 3-5 years old that are then moved into the middle school as they mature from adolescents into adults (3-6 feet). The high school enclosure houses the two largest alligators at the sanctuary, Godzilla and Medusa, a 9 foot female. 

   Each alligator has something in common; they all come from places that were not properly equipped to care for them. The only crocodile in the sanctuary, Lyle, lived with a professor in New York for a majority of his life, but after his passing, his wife no longer wanted to care for Lyle and surrendered him to Critchlow. Another alligator, Charlie, spent the first 8 years of his life with a family in Minnesota. He grew up with two dogs, and was raised to believe that he was a dog, he  even laid on the couch. Charlie is a favorite among his handlers. “I like to keep him updated on current events, like covid and politics,” Said owner David Critchlow.  Unfortunately, his owner went bankrupt and could no longer afford to care for him. Godzilla spent the first years of his life in the window of a pet store, but no one ever wanted him, for obvious reasons. He was kept in the window until the pet store shut down and he had nowhere to go. Other alligators housed here have a more tragic backstory. Tyrion, the sanctuary’s oldest gator at 32 years old was housed in a horse trough in a dark Minnesota basement for 25 years before coming to Critchlow’s. He is much smaller than he should be at his age because his growth was stunted due to spending more than half of his life in a horse trough. New arrival, Smiley, came from Minnesota, where she was a regular attraction at renaissance festivals. Medusa, the largest female gator in the sanctuary, arrived with severely crooked teeth, which is a sign of Vitamin D deficiency, or in some cases never having seen sunlight in their lifetime. 

   Owning an alligator is legal in Michigan; however, that does not mean that you should, by any means, buy one. They are available for purchase through private sellers and even pet stores. Depending on where they are purchased, alligators cost less than most dogs and are fairly easy to obtain if you have a license. Most alligators are purchased as babies, and while they may seem docile and manageable when they are 6 inches long, they will inevitably grow to 5+ feet and develop aggressive tendencies. While they may be fairly inexpensive to purchase, they are very expensive to take care of. Alligators have a large appetite and thus require a lot of food, and they require large enclosures with both water and grassy areas, as well as climate controlled areas for the cooler months. Alligators are a lifelong commitment, as they can live anywhere from 65-80 years in captivity, so not only are you committing to taking care of it for your entire life, but your kids will also have to commit to taking care of it when you pass away. It is estimated that 2,000-3,000 alligators are living as pets in Michigan, which is why safe havens like Critchlow’s Alligator Sanctuary are so important for the protection and longevity of exotic animals in captivity.

   Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary provides a safe haven for these majestic creatures and allows them to spend the rest of their days basking in the sun and acting as a reminder for the public that some animals are better left in the wild.