Family keeps alligator in backyard for 37 years

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VAN NUYS, Ca. (CNN) - Animal officers in southern California were shocked to find a family's unusual pet.  They say it was a secret they kept for at least four decades.

The house looks like any other home in this quiet suburban neighborhood in the valley.  Sylvan Street in Van Nuys, to be exact.

But when Los Angeles animal control officers visited the property recently, armed with a search warrant, they found Jackson in the back yard.  Jackson is an eight-foot long alligator nearly 40 years old.

Officers discovered the giant reptile during a surprise visit working on tips.  They say it was in a wooden crate with a lid covered with leaves and branches.

"The officer approached the crate, could hear some hissing out of it and there we find the alligator," said Commander Mark Salazar of Los Angeles Animal Services.

Gators are found in the southeastern United States.  Their powerful crushing jaws and tails can snap a man's leg.  However, the people closest to Jackson call the alligator a part of the family.

"Jackson was cool, mellow. He lived his little life in the back yard. Everything worked out just fine. You feed it, let it do its thing. That's the extent of it," said Ron Gorecki, brother of the alligator's owner.

Gorecki say his sister and brother-in-law owned the alligator since birth, buying it at a local pet store in the late 1970s.  The brother-in-law has since passed away.

Animal control officers actually searched the property thoroughly late last year, working on a tip.  They found nothing at the time.

This time they believe they found two cat carcasses in the alligator's crate, and fear the creature may have been on a steady diet of small animals and neighborhood pets for the last four decades.

"No, it's all hog-wash," said Gorecki.

Jackson the gator is in animal control custody while possible criminal charges are investigated.

Neighbors who may have lost a pet over the last 40 years are being asked to call police.