LAKELAND – Mary Thorn of Lakeland is hoping that an alligator she has nurtured for 11 years can stay in her care.
An appeal has been filed with the state's 2nd District Court of Appeal
seeking to overturn a recent decision by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that denied a new captive wildlife permit for Thorn due to the animal’s recent growth spurt, from 4-feet to 6-feet long. FWC officials require that alligators that large must live on properties with at least 2.5 acres of open space. These requirements were updated in 2009 when American alligators were upgraded from Class III animals to Class II animals.
Thorn keeps "Rambo" inside most of the time due to sensitivity to light suffered under the care of another, but she says he is potty trained and great with her dogs and with children.
Her attorney, Spencer Sheehan of Sheehan and Associates PC in Great Neck, N.Y., said he believes his client's situation should be grandfathered in under the old regulations considering she has had the alligator for 11 years. He says the new regulations made special exemptions for those whose animals were upgraded from Class II to Class I, but nothing was put in writing about the changes between other classes.
“There was a specific ruling dealing with how Class II permit holders were treated when their animals became Class I, but not a specific rule on how to treat Class III when they became Class II,” Sheehan recently told the Florida Record.
The attorney said he has just recently required some information through a Freedom of Information Act request he submitted to FWC.
“I asked them for any directives or emails that might have instructed inspectors about how to handle these types of cases,” Sheehan said. “I was told there were no records but inspectors would have been advised to grandfather them in (under previous regulations).”
An email provided by Sheehan from Shawn Boston, whose title at FWC is listed as Operations & Management Consultant II, confirms that account.
The email reads, “FWC investigators would have been advised at the time that anyone in lawful possession of a Class III species that was up-listed to Class II due to Florida Administrative Code rule change would have been allowed to continue their possession of that wildlife, notwithstanding any extraordinary circumstances that would prevent that possession. The individual(s) would, however, be required to obtain the appropriate license for Class II wildlife.”
Thorn first adopted Rambo while she was working with an alligator rescue organization.
“The alligator was seized from an individual who had been unlawfully harboring the alligator,” Sheehan said. “They had been keeping five alligators in a dark room, under awful conditions. They were transferred to a sanctuary and they all reportedly had sensitivities to the sun. Four of the five perished because of the sensitivity. That’s why she dresses him up in clothes when he’s outdoors.”
Sheehan says he is hopeful that the FWC will reconsider its position about Rambo.
“I think it’s possible this might be an issue where she was denied, maybe because the person who brought this to the attention of the supervisor wasn’t informed of this informal directive (to grandfather in wildlife owners),” he said. “They have a lot of rules and regulations, and it’s impossible to remember them all.”
Sheehan said Thorn was confused by some of the information needed on the form to obtain her new license, which may have also contributed to her permit being denied.
“I’m hopeful this will be resolved so she’ll be able to keep her alligator,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan doesn’t think the case will go before the court for at least another month.
“There are all sorts of procedural prerequisites before the court would make a decision,” he said. “So right now there is no solid time frame. I’ve also requested that the FWC agree to a brief adjournment to sort through some things and hopefully that will allow the parties to reach a resolution without court involvement.”
A Facebook page and a change.org petition have been created to gather support for Thorn’s cause.