Ypsilanti woman: I almost hit alligator on US 23

The thing about alligators is that even if you see one in an unexpected place, there's not much else it could be.

Jennifer Schwartz will tell you with confidence that she nearly ran over a short-armed, long-tailed, sharp-toothed gator last week as it plodded across U.S.-23 southbound in Washtenaw County. What she can't tell you is what the heck it was doing there.

An alligator. In Michigan. On Feb. 13. Heading west, slowly, with its long head poking across the white boundary line of the right-hand lane and the rest of it, from the neck down, in traffic.

This alligator was photographed in Fakahatchee State Park in Florida, a location known as a good place for spotting gators — unlike Michigan.
This alligator was photographed in Fakahatchee State Park in Florida, a location known as a good place for spotting gators — unlike Michigan.

Schwartz, 42, understands that people will be skeptical. The 911 operator she spoke to certainly was, and a state trooper I followed up with this week was downright dismissive.

But "it's not impossible," said James Harding, a retired herpetology instructor at Michigan State University, and Schwartz "sounds like she knows what she's talking about."

In 2022, for the record, a reported alligator sighting in the Kalamazoo River prompted the closing of a nature center, which seems ironic. A smattering of escaped pet gators had been reported in Michigan three years earlier.

Those were summer sightings, though, of smaller specimens than what Schwartz saw.

"I have to suspect this was more of a juvenile creature," Schwartz told me, and for the record, I called her and not the other way around. She mentioned the incident to a mutual friend, the friend astutely figured I might be interested in a wandering alligator, and in short order, I was asking for details.

While it was lengthy, "It did not look like the big fatties you see in documentaries," she said. "It was all elbows, if that makes sense."

If you've seen an alligator walk, it does.

If you've seen an alligator walk across a major highway in the middle of winter, a few miles past the Whitmore Lake exits, maybe nothing makes sense ― least of all to him.

Sober, slowed and surprised

A clinical social worker from Ypsilanti, Schwartz had been in Lansing co-hosting a speed dating event.

Jennifer Schwartz, 42 of Ypslilanti.
Jennifer Schwartz, 42 of Ypslilanti.

She had not been drinking, she said, and though there was minimal traffic, she wasn't speeding ― or as she put it, "I was doing a little under the speed limit, because I'm a square."

Figure 68 mph, then, in a 2018 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, in a shade called black currant metallic that looks faintly blue in the sunshine but would have looked very much black at 11:15 p.m. or so in the substandard eyesight of an alligator. The song on her alt-rock Spotify playlist was Primus' "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver."

Then ... What? What? She eased off the gas pedal and tugged the Toyota into the left lane, and with her neurons racing, she tried to come up with mental substitutes for what she'd just seen.

Not a branch. She'd passed a shredded truck tire once with one end of the tread whipping in the wind, but not that, either. In a fraction of a mile, she realized she'd seen what her brain insisted on, even if logic denied it.

"He was moving," Schwartz said, if painstakingly, in that gait where an alligator's torso is raised and its tail drags behind as almost a counterbalance. A standard freeway lane is 12 feet wide and he stretched to two-thirds of it, she estimated.

She wanted to warn other drivers and she knows it's no longer legal to grab a phone and dial a number behind the wheel, "but I'm going to pull over and make the call and get eaten by an alligator?"

No. At highway speed, she punched in 911.

Cold facts about alligators

The dispatcher she spoke to with the Michigan State Police seemed unconvinced, she said, "which he had every right to be."

Then he fixated on whether she'd seen the alleged alligator before or after she took note of the mile marker, 46.6, which seemed odd; would she have noted the location ahead of time, just in case there was a reptile on the road?

"How do you know it was an alligator?" he asked at one point, and that seemed condescending, so she started explaining what an alligator looks like.

"OK," he finally said, "we'll go check it out," and maybe he sent a trooper. Or maybe, given the response when I called the Brighton MSP post a week later, he just went to the vending machine for a Snickers and got on with his night.

"An alligator is a cold-blooded animal," explained someone who identified himself as Trooper McCarthy. As such, he said, "A), it wouldn't survive. B), it wouldn't be able to move."

As to whether a trooper took a look, near the end of a day with a high temperature of 34 degrees, "I'm not even going to call dispatch about it," he told me. "I got things to do. OK? Goodbye."

Consider, however, the mild winter, and the warm spell last week that touched 60 degrees twice. Factor in the boggy terrain near Whitmore Lake, and that it's unclear when the alligator escaped from a sloppy human or was turned loose by a callous one.

Hours earlier? Days? Long enough to star in a horror movie?

“That’s the habitat it would want to go to and be in,” said Harding, the former MSU herpetologist. “If a winter is really mild, and they had open water that wasn’t iced over so they were able to breathe, alligators are able to tolerate being cold for quite a while.”

Why this one decided to take a stroll is uncertain. Also undetermined, Harding said, is its size.

“When it comes to alligators, snakes and fish, people tend to misjudge or overestimate,” he said.

An alligator half as long as a lane is wide would be a 6-footer. Using the lane as a yardstick, Schwartz’s account put hers at 8 or 9 feet.

Assuming it was an escaped or discarded pet, “a 6- or 8-footer would take quite a bit of wrangling,” Harding said.

One thing he knows for sure is that "if I was that alligator, I wouldn't be happy about it."

As for Schwartz, she's glad she was paying attention to the road and what was hugging it.

She's fond of her car ― and there are some conversations you don't want to have with an insurance company.

Neal Rubin was once given a caiman, a smaller South American crocodilian, as a birthday gift and moved it across the country in the back seat of a '71 Plymouth Fury. It was a valued, if hostile, family member until its demise. Reach Neal at NARubin@freepress.com.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Washtenaw County driver: I nearly ran over alligator on US 23