From the streets to the BioTrek: the story of Fabio the caiman

By Jane Pojawa

Fabio is venting.

For a crocodile, that means regulating his body temperature by holding his mouth open, not complaining about his lot in life.

Fabio is a 15-year-old spectacled caiman, a subspecies of alligator, who lives in Cal Poly Pomona’s BioTrek Rainforest Learning Center greenhouse. Thirteen years ago, the Department of Fish and Wildlife caught him strolling down the road in Westminster, and he’s made his home at CPP ever since.

“At the time we were building the greenhouse, there were some grad students working here who thought Fabio would be an appropriate name for him,” said Michael Brown, BioTrek’s curator. “It was because he likes to pose, not because of his hair.”

He doesn’t have hair, but he does have bony plates in his skin that distinguish the spectacled caiman from other species.

“The spectacled caiman are actually expanding their territory in South America, even as other species of caiman are becoming endangered,” said Brown. “Their skin isn’t conducive to tanning, so hunters usually don’t bother with them.”

If it seems that having a campus alligator is an anomaly, there have been precedents.

When Fabio came to campus, he joined two young alligators that lived on the roof of Building 8 in the biology department’s menagerie. The alligators eventually outgrew their enclosure, and were rehomed to a wildlife park in Mexico.

“Alligators are somewhat tractable,” said Brown. “Caimans and crocodiles” not so much.”

Fabio, now about six feet long, is a mid-sized caiman. His weekly feeding of fish and small mammals can get violent ” caiman tend to thrash their prey into smaller pieces. A small sign on his wall, “Keep your fingers” out of the enclosure,” is good advice for anyone wanting to keep their appendages. Despite the propensity for biting and thrashing, the caiman does have a companion: a red-eared slider that was too anti-social for the carp tank. When he basks on his hot rock, the turtle is often sunning itself on his back.

Fabio’s gender has not been definitively determined.

“We’d have to truss him and probe him, and it would be really stressful,” said Brown. “For him and for us.”

And so the mystery remains.

Even the alligators that made CPP their home in the ’90s and early 2000s were not the first.

Ron Simons, also known as “Mr. Cal Poly Pomona,” was a campus fixture from 1959 until his retirement in 2012. An engaging storyteller, he was also a bit of a wild card in his youth. Simons is remembered for 50 years of service as an administrator and for his contributions to the Rose Parade float program, but few people remember that he once kept a caiman named Snappy in his dorm room.

In a PolyCentric story celebrating his retirement, Simons recounted that after Snappy’s untimely demise, Simons and his friends held a midnight funeral service, complete with candles and pallbearers, to lay Snappy to rest west of the Alamitos Residence Hall.

As strange as Snappy’s tale is, there must be something about the campus’s ponds that makes certain people think “This would make a great alligator pit,” because Simons was not the first to bring the reptiles to Pomona. Perhaps unwittingly, Simons followed in the footsteps of W. K. Kellogg, better known for his horses than his alligators.

The alligator enterprise was far less successful than the Arabian horse program and came to an abrupt end in summer 1925. The landscape gardeners were at their wit’s end; all attempts to remove the alligators from the upper ponds were for naught ” they simply refused to be relocated. They ate the fish and the ducks and had surly attitudes. Because of the largest gator’s stubborn refusal to submit to capture, the upper pond was drained and gardeners were dispatched to subdue him. Eventually, the alligator clan was destroyed in the interests of restoring peace to the Kellogg ponds.

The crocodilian presence on campus dates back 90 years, and it’s a tradition that’s likely to continue into the future. Because of the biology department’s superlative record (the facility is inspected every six months with an additional annual state inspection), the Department of Fish and Wildlife frequently looks to CPP to house exotic reptiles.

BioTrek’s umbrella covers several diverse habitats and biological learning environments. The Rainforest Learning Center alone is home to more than 100 different species of plants and animals. The facilities are available to the campus community (reservations are required), and field trips for K-12 students are conducted almost daily. Brown’s BIO 488 class earns service-learning credit by leading age-appropriate activities for the younger students. A new BIO 499 class offered in the fall will allow students to learn about native plants and teach elementary school children in the Ethnobotany Garden Learning Center.

Many students have a soft spot for Fabio. If the greenhouse door is open, he’s certain to have visitors.

And if the sun is shining, he’ll be on his ledge striking a pose.


Jane Pojawa / The Poly Post


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