Albino gator back at Academy of Sciences

March 24, 2009 10:35:33 PM PDT
One of the star attractions at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is back.

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It has been about seven months since the exciting arrival of the alligators at the California Academy of Sciences Museum in Golden Gate Park.

"Claude" the albino alligator was taken out of his swamp exhibit two months ago to recover from an injury. And, he has not just been lying around.

Claude is an albino alligator but his tank mate "Bonnie" has standard coloring. The two had never met until they moved into the Academy's swamp exhibit together. They were an instant hit with visitors.

And, at first they seemed to like each other too.

"Then, over time it became apparent there were some issues between the two of them," said Chris Andrews.

Those issues finally got out of control in January when Bonnie is believed to have bitten Claude's foot. The staff did not see it happen but they could see the injury.

The next day, all seemed forgiven when the two alligators were snuggling on their heated rock. But, academy biologists still wanted a better look at the injured foot so they took Claude out of the exhibit.

"The damage to the little pinky on his right front foot was quite sort of severe, if you will. And we decided the best thing was to amputate the pinky," Andrews explained. "So, we put him under general anesthetic. We were monitoring his condition with a blood pressure cuff and so on, and we just did surgery on him."

Claude was moved to a tank in the Academy basement to recover and his foot healed quickly. The next challenge was figuring out how to make life easier for him when he moved back to his exhibit.

First he was taught to come when his name is called. When he gets where he is supposed to be, he is rewarded with food and the sound of a whistle. The trainer calls him back and forth across the tank and he gets lots of tasty treats made of fish meal.

"It's a pellet. It's just standard alligator and crocodile diet," explained Claude's trainer Brian.

The reason Claude is being trained this way is so the staff can move him around easily and get him to a gated area when it is time to clean his exhibit.

Claude's biggest challenge is bad eyesight. It is common in albinos but biologists are not sure exactly how bad Claude's is. So, they are trying to test it with a green disk. First they have to teach Claude to associate the disk with food, then figure out how far away he can see it.

"We know he can see things that are really close to him and moving. But, the further away they are, it's hard to say," explained his trainer.

Eye problems may be the reason Claude had trouble getting along with Bonnie in the first place.

When he goes back to the swamp exhibit he will get a few weeks alone in the swamp to figure out where everything is. Once Claude learns his way around Bonnie will come back. If things do not work out the Academy will find a new friend for Claude.

"It's a little bit like a dating game if you will. You've got to keep trying until it works out and then you are good to go," Chris said.

Claude was moved back to his exhibit early Tuesday morning and Bonnie was moved to a holding tank.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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