Gator hunters come up empty - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Gator hunters come up empty

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Posted: Friday, June 30, 2006 10:28 am | Updated: 4:57 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Add the elusive Monster of Mesa to the legends of Sasquatch, the Holy Grail and Nessie of Loch Ness. Spectators gathered Thursday and swapped rumors, theories and eyewitness accounts as animal control workers searched in vain for any sign of an alligator living in a murky pond that coils through La Valencia Apartment Homes near University and Val Vista drives in Mesa.

Some in the crowd came from nearby neighborhoods and brought digital cameras, lawn chairs and water bottles. Others were longtime La Valencia residents who talked about turtle sightings, fish as long as a man's forearm and even one boa constrictor that somebody discovered in the pond about 10 years ago.

"But no alligators," said one veteran resident.

Managers at the 361-unit complex decided Wednesday to drain the narrow 2 1/2-acre pond after at least four residents came forward with independent reports of a meat-eating creature living below the surface.

La Valencia resident Larry Roberts knows what he and his adult son witnessed together: A duck pulled under the water on Sunday, and another duck dragged around the pond and pulled under three times on June 23.

"When it went under the third time, all we saw was bubbles," Roberts said.

Groundskeepers also reported a dwindling duck population and skittish behavior from the remaining birds. And apartment managers added their own detail to the mix: A former tenant who left behind a large aquarium.

When apartment inspectors had pressed the man about why he kept the aquarium, he had joked that it once contained an alligator.

That was enough for Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society. While Mesa Animal Control officers poked around in the perimeter bushes on Thursday, volunteers from Johnson's organization helped Arizona Game and Fish workers drag nets through the pond.

"I gotta believe there's a small alligator in here," Johnson said Thursday morning. "If it's taking adult ducks, it can do a lot of damage."

Johnson shrugged off concerns that it might not be smart to walk around in a pond with a meat-eating lizard. On his right hand, he showed off a mangled finger from a rattlesnake bite on an earlier mission.

"You don't take an IQ test to volunteer with us," he said with a smile.

Then he crawled headfirst under a gazebo that covered one corner of the pond — just in case the alligator had taken refuge in the shady nook.

Spectators waited patiently while temperatures rose and the water level dropped. Lori Kometer, who works at a nearby youth center, came with a group of teens.

"We're committed to staying here all day until we see an alligator," she said.

Five-year-old Russell Brown clutched a toy alligator in his hand and stared at the pond for several hours from his back porch. When any spectator walked past, he would ask eagerly: "Did you find it yet?"

But not everyone shared Russell's faith.

La Valencia resident Larry Bunker had his own theory about the vanishing ducks. "I've seen the fish attack the ducks when people feed them," he said. "I think that's all it is: The fish."

Still, Bunker kept a digital camera around his neck. "Just in case," he explained.

Eventually, the water drained until only a few inches remained. But all this revealed were soda cans, an old tennis ball and several large catfish and carp.

The herpetological society called it quits at 3:37 p.m. and declared the alligator a myth.

"If there was ever an alligator in the pond, it existed only in someone's imagination," Johnson said. "But it would have been cool."

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