Originally published April 18, 2003.
Mitch the alligator spent the past year and a half in the greenhouse at Palmer High School, living large.
At mealtime, chunks of salmon and halibut dropped from a long stick into a pen framed by a big wood fence. Mitch soaked in a palm-rimmed pond or napped in a cave under a heat lamp.
Occasionally, a turtle that shared the pond crawled into the cave and lounged on the 6-foot gator's back, under the lamp.
But this alligator idyll came to an end, possibly a bad one for Mitch. He disappeared over spring break. He never made it to the Florida game farm where he had a reservation.
All that seems certain is Mitch was evicted and no longer lives at Palmer High.
Inspection officer Mike Kiehn, an agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said that the alligator was dead and that Palmer High agriculture teacher Don Berberich told him he shot it.
Berberich, a respected teacher and boys soccer coach, said twice this week that he had not shot the alligator, especially since Kiehn instructed him not to.
Berberich said he inherited Mitch from a Wasilla couple who had a new baby in the house. Last school year, a custodian asked Berberich whether he wanted her daughter's alligator for his greenhouse pool. Berberich, who had baby alligators when he grew up in Ohio, was intrigued.
"I said, 'How big is it?' " he said. "She said, 'Two feet long.' "
The alligator he loaded into his pickup was twice that big, the teacher said.
"I can see trouble here," he recalled thinking. "Instead of saying 'No way, this is dumb,' I went ahead, thinking 'This will be cool.' All the way home, I'm wondering how I'm going to tell my principal."
Two days later, the School District office told local school officials to get rid of the gator. But time passed and nothing definitive happened, Berberich said.
District officials contacted Palmer High last year because they worried that Mitch might hurt students, and they also wanted the greenhouse used for the study of Alaska agriculture, said Kim Floyd, spokeswoman for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District.
A fence surrounding the gator's pen was too high for younger students to even look in, Berberich said. Two seniors made the gator their senior project, and they were really the only students who interacted with Mitch.
Meanwhile, Mitch grew from 4 to 6 feet. He was thought to be an American alligator, which can grow to 500 pounds and 14 feet, with 74 to 80 teeth.
Spring break last month seemed like a good time to evict Mitch, Floyd said. The district sent out a memo that all animals had to go home over the break.
Palmer police sent an animal control officer to the school March 25, according to a borough memo. The officer found a well-fed alligator, along with the district superintendent, the borough's risk manager and a few other people.
Superintendent Bob Doyle reportedly told the officer to load the gator into his truck. The officer balked, saying he didn't have the right equipment or a place to put the creature, but he offered to find an appropriate facility.
"The School District gave him a deadline of Friday, March 28 (the end of spring break), to remove the alligator, with implications that something would be done to the alligator if it were not removed by the Friday deadline," the memo states.
The officer, with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, worked to find Mitch a home. They contacted St. Augustine Alligator Farm, a zoological park in Florida.
Curator John Brueggen said he agreed to take the alligator as long as the Alaskans would pay Mitch's way, which he estimated at $300.
Kiehn said the agencies were probably days away from finding a way to pay for the trip.
After animal control couldn't collect Mitch, Berberich said, "they set up something else. I went skiing."
When spring break ended a few days later, the gator was gone. Berberich said the last he heard, the reptile was bound for Florida.
But Mitch never made it to the zoological park, curator Brueggen said.
Borough Attorney Elizabeth Friedman said animal control officers did not take the gator; they left it — alive. The borough's "Alligator Status Memorandum" says the alligator's owner, which it did not name, took the animal home and shot it.
The case is still under investigation.
It's not necessarily illegal to kill an alligator. But the authorities suspect that Mitch was an American alligator, protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Once decimated by hunters to make handbags and boots, the alligators have rebounded. They remain protected because most hunters can't differentiate them from rare American crocodiles, Kiehn said.
Alligators acquired as pets are generally farm-raised. A Fish and Wildlife agent is trying to find out whether the alligator's importation to Alaska or supposed untimely end violated any laws.
Berberich, meanwhile, said he won't miss the fish smell in his greenhouse. All the same, he said, he remembered fondly the day Mitch moved in.
"When we turned him loose in that pond, he was just lovin' it."