Snowball, rare white alligator, stolen from sanctuary

Fire at the Animal Crossings of Florida also resulted in the death of 43 alligators and crocodiles


Florida: A break-in and fire at an animal sanctuary Friday left 43 alligators and crocodiles dead, and one exceptionally rare white alligator missing and believed stolen, the authorities said this week.

“It appears that the building was burglarised first and then set on fire after the theft of the rare alligator,” the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office said Monday in a statement, which categorised the episode as grand theft, animal cruelty, arson and burglary.

The building housed crocodilian reptiles that were cared for by Robbie Keszey, who alongside his brother, Stephen, hosted the Discovery Channel reality show Swamp Brothers, which aired in 2011 and 2012. The brothers are part owners of the sanctuary, a nonprofit called Animal Crossings of Florida, in Bushnell, Florida, about an hour northeast of Tampa.

The missing creature is a leucistic alligator, one of only 10 in the world, Robbie Keszey said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Keszey said that leucistic alligators could be worth $100,000 (Dh367,300) or more but stressed that “this gator can’t be sold”.

“Everyone in the world knows this gator,” he said. “Whoever has it has no outlet to get rid of it.”

Using the name given the alligator, Keszey said, “It scares me in a way, because I don’t want someone killing Snowball or throwing Snowball into a lake or river.” He continued, “Obviously the person who did this doesn’t care because they killed all my other crocodilians.”

“To me, he was priceless,” he added. “Snowball was like my best friend. I’d handle him every day. We just want Snowball back.”

Leucistic alligators are like albino alligators in that they appear to be white. But leucistic animals’ eyes are blue, making them even more rare.

At 8.30 p.m. Friday, the police and personnel from Sumter County Fire Rescue responded to a fire at the building where the animals were housed. “Once the fire was extinguished, it was determined to be a total loss,” the sheriff’s office said.

Keszey, who lives on a 40-acre farm where the sanctuary is and where Swamp Brothers was filmed, said that after dinner, his son went to “shut down the room” as usual. Moments later, his son ran back screaming about the fire.

“I tried to open the door, but the handle was so hot, I couldn’t even touch it,” Keszey said. “Fire was shooting out the sides of the building. I just fell to my knees and started crying and throwing up.”

Keszey told police that the last time he’d seen Snowball was Friday at about 11:30 a.m.

The police are “chasing down every lead that they have,” Keszey said.

When asked if he had ever received any threats or knew of anyone who wished him or his animals harm, Keszey said: “No, no one. Everybody loved Snowball. Kids loved Snowball.”

Keszey regularly used Snowball, who would turn three years old in August, as an educational tool. He said he especially enjoyed teaching groups of children about the animals.

“Snowball was incredible to use because he looked different than an alligator,” said Keszey, who also referred to the sanctuary as an education center. “I believe in conservation through entertainment. If you can make people laugh, you can get them to pay attention.”

In 2013, Keszey and Robroy MacInnes, his business partner at the time – they owned the Florida reptile dealership Glades Herp Farm – were charged by the Justice Department with conspiracy to traffic in protected reptiles. They were both found guilty. MacInnes was also charged with and convicted of trafficking in protected eastern timber rattlesnakes. In 2014, MacInnes was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $4,000. Keszey was sentenced to 12 months and fined $2,000.

A lawyer for MacInnes did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Looking back, Keszey said: “You live and learn, and you go forward. That’s why when all that happened, Stephen and I dissolved the business and got rid of that business partner and went on to do our own thing.”



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