Out of the murky pool poked a leathery snout, toothy jaws open wide.
David Van Buren dug into a nearly empty box of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and offered a treat to the huge gator swimming in his front yard.
“Oooh, cookie monster,” he cooed. “Do you want to split one with me? No? You want the whole thing?”
Gwendolyn opened his (yes, his) jaws a little wider and poked his head out of the water.
“All right, then,” Van Buren laughed, tossing Gwendolyn the cookie. He scarfed it and got a pat on the nose.
This has been Van Buren and Gwendolyn’s routine for 47 years, ever since then-9-year-old Van Buren “cried and begged and pleaded” with his mom for the $2 gator while vacationing in Florida. He flew the tiny creature home to New York in the pocket of his baseball jacket and set him up in a fish tank. He used his allowance to buy goldfish (10 for a dollar) to feed his new pet.
Of course, now that Gwendolyn is more than 11 feet long — Van Buren said he doesn’t know for sure because they “don’t have that kind of relationship” — he prefers fish or rotisserie chickens from Costco. He likes the lemon pepper kind.
It was only a few years ago the retired Miami-Dade firefighter discovered his pet had a taste for junk food as well. Gwendolyn feasts on pizza, brownies and chocolate chip cookies.
When he isn’t snacking, Gwendolyn lurks in a 4-foot deep concrete pool in the shaded front yard of Van Buren’s teal Coconut Grove home. The 8-foot concrete walls topped with barbed wire that face the street tip neighbors off that this is not your average Grove home. But it’s what’s inside the inner chicken wire walls that alarmed one neighbor, who called Florida Fish and Wildlife officials about the reptile.
On Thursday, Van Buren said officers stormed his house, searched his property and told him the alligator was illegal.
“It’s under investigation right now,” said FWC spokesperson Lorenzo Veloz. “Our real mission is to make sure that Gwendolyn has the proper care.”
A similar call brought Fish and Wildlife officials to Van Buren’s door in October 1994 when Gwendolyn escaped. They confiscated Gwendolyn, arrested Van Buren and the confrontation escalated to a court battle over the gator.
Van Buren won, and his pet arrived home to a block full of cheering people toasting champagne under a banner that read “Welcome Home Gwendolyn.”
For the last 22 years, the gator has lived in Van Buren’s yard with an FWC permit, swimming and sunning and occasionally snoozing on his lawn chair. He’s lived in his pen for 30 years, but Gwendolyn used to have the life of a pampered house pet.
In the chaos of a move to a new apartment years ago, baby Gwendolyn climbed out of his fish tank and never looked back. He slept in the water-filled bathtub, did his business on newspapers near the toilet, carried around a squeaky doggie chew toy and took naps in the sun on Van Buren’s bed.
He knows four commands — “Come,” “Gwendolyn,” “No” and “Hungry?”
When they moved to Coconut Grove, Van Buren built him a home outside, complete with a 15-foot by 6-foot pool with fresh, running water. These days, Van Buren is keeping the water a little dirtier than usual to offer his pet more protection from prying eyes.
“He’s got almost a sixth sense that Fish and Game wants to make boots of him,” Van Buren said.
After FWC officers interviewed him recently, Van Buren said he sent them all the information they asked for. Now all he can do is wait.
“If they had a problem with the judge’s ruling, they should have said something 22 years ago,” he said.