When Alligator Adventure staff lifted a long, wooden crate into the North Myrtle Beach park, Dekoya Damper pulled out her cellphone.
The Charlotte tourist knew something unusual was about to happen.
What Samper didn’t know was that she was documenting international conservation history: For the first time, animal rescue workers from Canada shipped alligators to a facility in the United States.
“That’s really neat,” she said. “Just the idea itself of wanting to give an alligator a habitat and actually caring about their well-being.”
Tuesday’s delivery of 15 gators also likely saved some of the animals’ lives.
“[It’s] out of sheer necessity,” said Matt Korhonen, curator at Ottawa-based Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, which sent the gators to Alligator Adventure. “Basically, these animals have all come to us as people’s unwanted pets over the last 15-17 years, and in Canada there’s very limited resources to be able to care for alligators properly. … For many of these animals, the alternative was euthanasia. They’re going to be killed because there’s nowhere for them to live in our country.”
The gators’ arrival in North Myrtle Beach marked the culmination of more than eight months of negotiations between both facilities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’re very honored that we were selected as the facility to house these animals,” said Alligator Adventure spokesman Thad Bowman. “They can come outside and enjoy the rest of their lives in a natural environment.”
South Carolina law prohibits residents from owning alligators as pets. They are native to the Southeastern United States and can’t survive in cold climates. But in certain parts of Canada, Korhonen said, the laws aren’t strict and pet stores often sell alligators as exotic companions. Many people don’t know what they are getting into when they purchase them.
“They’re cute as babies,” said Darren Grandel, deputy chief of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “[But] there’s no way to adequately look after them in your basement or house or even a backyard in Canada. It’s just not the proper climate or environment.”
Many of the animals die from poor care. Survivors often end up places like Little Ray’s, although those zoos are rare.
In the last year, Korhonen said, three reptile facilities in Canada have closed because of funding problems. The shortage of proper sites prompted him to ask fellow conservationists for help.
“We’re really stuck here,” he said. “If we don’t find a home for the animals, they’re going to be euthanized. These zoos are closing and we only have so much space at our facility.”
A friend put him in touch with Alligator Adventure, a 15-acre reptile park beside Barefoot Landing that houses about 1,000 alligators, as well as crocodiles, caiman, tropical birds, snakes and other creatures.
The park had room for more alligators, which typically don’t arrive as unwanted pets because of state law.
“We don’t get the calls all the time like they do,” Bowman said, referring to Little Ray’s.
For some of the gators, the park is a drastic change from their former environs.
Korhonen said a 6-foot gator named Louie was rescued from a basement where she was kept in a koi pond that was about the size of a 40-gallon aquarium. She was curled up with her nose and tail touching. The water was filthy.
“It was JELLO basically, with so much algae and feces,” he said. “It wasn’t water anymore. It didn’t have proper food. It didn’t have proper temperatures. It was disgusting.”
Floating in the gelatinous liquid were dead bearded dragons, which the gator’s owner had tossed to the gator as food.
“Seeing an animal come from that to Alligator Adventure is uplifting,” Korhonen said. “For us, that’s very exciting.”
Grandel was also pleased. He and zoo inspector Maryanne Pryer made the trip from Canada just to see the rescued gators’ new home.
“The amount of work and effort that has gone into this is incredible,” Grandel said. “It’s exciting waiting for the truck to arrive to actually see these animals released here.”
Korhonen’s staff packed up the gators on Friday, and on Saturday the group flew from Toronto to Los Angeles. The pilot joked with passengers that the flight had been delayed because of some extra guests. Some people even made references to the action movie “Snakes on a Plane.” In the film, reptiles slither throughout the aircraft during flight.
“We were joking about it,” Korhonen said. “The guys in the cargo hold were like, ‘I wonder if Samuel L. Jackson’s on this flight.’ ”
Once the plane landed, the gators were loaded onto a truck and taken to the Phoenix Herpetological Society’s facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. From there, most of the animals were driven to North Myrtle Beach by Alligator Adventure staff. A few stayed behind at the Arizona site.
The collective weight of the animals topped 4,100 pounds, Korhonen said. However, the shipping costs were covered by a strong GoFundMe campaign. Two other shipments of animals from Canada to Alligator Adventure are already being planned. Nearly 60 creatures will eventually make the trip.
After the long journey, the first gators were hoisted into the park shortly before 3 p.m. Tuesday.
As the first one made her way to the park’s waters, one of the unloading crew piped up:
“Welcome to the U.S.A.”