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'Playboy' grounded: Catching the gator

'I'm a new man'

By Porter Anderson
CNN Career

(CNN) -- "I had no intention of going into that water."

But when Al Ostrowski saw that his scaly nemesis of five days was about to get away, "Well, stupid me. I mean, I wasn't dressed for the occasion. But I didn't want to lose it. I jumped in after it."

The Van Buren Township, Michigan, animal control police officer -- who has endured almost a week of rubber alligators in his car and jokes from townspeople, fellow cops and media types -- found himself at a new crossroads in his career late Monday as he cradled "Playboy" in his arms. That's the 3-year-old gator who bolted a pen last Wednesday and has kept Ostrowski scrambling ever since.

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"It was in my hands. But I could hardly grab it, because it was kind of slimy."

Ostrowski and Playboy now were sharing an algae-coated, mud-bottomed pond in southeastern Michigan. And Ostrowski had decided that Monday was "simply the day, that's all."

"We'd been waiting for the state Department of Environmental Quality to OK the plan to drain one pond into another. But because it's a wetland area, we were getting into federal guidelines. You know: Wetland. By 4 p.m., we still didn't have an answer. Somebody didn't want to make a decision."

Volunteer gator hunters Nathan Hernden and Buddy Yancer had returned from Midland -- about two hours from Van Buren, north of Saginaw -- to help out. And Ostrowski corraled three members of the Van Buren Township dive team.

"So we had five guys. The idea was to wade through the pond, form a skirmish line, wade through the pond, sort of push the gator to one side, then grab it.

"We'd seen the gator in there an hour before, so we knew it was in there," says Ostrowski. "And yet they went through about four times and he didn't come out. But we weren't going to give up and walk out of there without that alligator."

Al Ostrowski, Van Buren's animal control police officer, jumped into a pond and grabbed the runaway gator late Monday:
Al Ostrowski, Van Buren's animal control police officer, jumped into a pond and grabbed the runaway gator late Monday: "This was going to be the last day of this, regardless."  

The reptile had been picked up from an apartment dweller last Tuesday and was in a holding pen made for dogs, awaiting transfer to the Michigan Humane Society facility in Rochester Hills, north of Detroit. When Playboy stepped out -- some time between 6 and 7 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, he triggered days of searching and trap-laying in a swampy cattail-filled rural area that has about a dozen homes, several ponds and a water-filled quarry.

"This was going to be the last day of this, regardless. So I was standing on the bank with my lieutenant as the guys were making the fifth pass, down near the end of the pond. And that son of a ... well, I saw his tail go over the hip of the guy nearest me."

And that's when Ostrowski decided to wade into the fray, himself. Finding the three-and-a-half-foot gator too slippery to hang onto, "I scooped it up and as I did, I threw it. And the guy on the end caught it. And the way he caught it was ideal, because he caught it so the head was under his arm -- so he was able to keep the mouth shut."

Playboy was in a headlock. And a cage was waiting, just feet from the water's edge. "We just threw it into the cage and got him right out of there."

Travis Henson, 23, owned Playboy until last Tuesday, when he signed the gator over to the police.  When Playboy escaped late Wednesday, Henson was among the first to help search for him.
Travis Henson, 23, owned Playboy until last Tuesday, when he signed the gator over to the police. When Playboy escaped late Wednesday, Henson was among the first to help search for him.  

Ostrowski concedes that a certain amount of luck has been at play in several instances of the scaly saga that's obsessed him for days. For one thing, Hernden and Yancer were able to spot the gator early in the weekend, to get a fix on which pond he'd taken over as his own. As Charles Bazzy, one of Ostrowski's police associates told the Associated Press, the pond was "like vacationing in Maui" for Playboy, who was raised in captivity.

And even the late-Monday pond-seizure could have gone very differently, considering that the divers found themselves sinking deeply into its muddy bottom as they made their way through chest-deep, murky water.

Playboy seems unharmed after his excellent adventure and now is securely held by the Michigan Humane Society, "which I guess has a type of holding facility for large reptiles, one of the few in the area. And I'm assuming they're probably going to send it down south to some type of game preserve."

All Al Ostrowski really needs to know is that his 21,000-person community no longer has the feisty fugitive to contend with.

"I'm a happy camper, believe me. I might even take half a day today to go home and kick back and do nothing. Yeah. I'm a new man."


[watercooler]





RELATED STORIES:
RELATED SITES:
• The Detroit Zoo
• The Michigan Humane Society
• Van Buren Township, Michigan

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