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A "half-tank holiday" trip to the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary

a group of three to five foot alligators in a sanctuary habitat
Brian OKeefe
Some of the nearly 200 alligators at the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary

In the second part of WMUK's series on local and regional road trip destinations, we get a close look at animals not often found in Michigan.

Drive about 40 minutes southeast of Kalamazoo and you’ll find the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary. Don Critchlow started the roadside zoo in 2008. These days Don’s daughter, Lina Kelly is running the show. She considers herself the director of animal care. With her father wanting to retire, Kelly said she and her brother Pete now handle the day-to-day. That means taking care of close to 200 crocodilians.

The Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary is a second chance for all of the animals it has on display. “Everything we have here is a previous pet, so everything is an animal that just needed a new home,” Kelly told me.  “We don’t buy any animals, we don’t sell them, we don’t trade them, and we don’t breed them.”

You might be surprised at how often the sanctuary rescues one of the toothy reptiles. This year Critchlow has taken in 17 crocodilians; that doesn’t include the tortoises, turtles, lizards, and snakes.

“So far this year we’re around 50 animals that we’ve taken in, just this year, and 17 of them are crocodilian,” Kelly said.

At Critchlow the goal is to give every animal a good life; but the facility is a totally new experience for most of the animals it takes in. Most of them have never been outside, so “everything here is really scary and intimidating,” Kelly said. “There’s thunder, lightning, rain, and excessive heat.”

As Kelly and I toured the facility, she suddenly stopped. "The gators are bellowing," she said.

I heard a groan.

Kelly explained that a bellow is a typical alligator vocalization. This was a one-off, but when one alligator bellows others often follow. At the sanctuary, which is next to a two-lane highway, there can be many reasons for alligators to begin bellowing.

“Sometimes it’s heavy traffic or the vibrations from Harley Davidsons,” Kelly said. “Even the garbage truck coming in and slamming the dumpster on the ground can set the alligators off.”

Typically, Critchlow takes in alligators that are three feet long, but there are exceptions.

“This year the sanctuary has taken in an eight-footer and two 10-foot alligators,” Kelly said.

Many municipalities prohibit keeping exotic animals as pets, but otherwise it is legal in Michigan to own a pet alligator.

Kelly said that people don’t realize the commitment they are getting into when they decide to bring home an alligator or tortoise. Alligators can live 60 to 80 years and in the case of a tortoise, the life span is more than 100 years.

That’s another benefit of the sanctuary: visitors can see and learn about the reptiles with no lifetime commitment.

Brian comes to WMUK after spending nearly 30 years as News Director of a public radio station in the Chicago area. Brian grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and attended Western Kentucky University where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Broadcasting. He started working in public radio while at WKU; and has worked in radio news for more than 35 years. Brian lives on a quiet lake in Barry County with his wife and three dogs. Thanks to his Kentucky roots, he’s an avid collector of bourbon and other varieties of whiskey. Above all else, Brian considers himself a story teller and looks forward to sharing southwest Michigan stories with WMUK’s listeners.
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