“Grandma, you’ve got to call the DNR!”
Those words from 9-year-old Quinlynn Lehrnann were Connie Peer’s second clue that Saturday, Oct. 12, was not going to be a typical day of yard work around her home on Lower Prior Lake.
The first was the picture her husband, Kent, sent her of a dead 2.5-foot caiman, a reptile similar to a small crocodile, on a rocky beach.
“I thought, well, we just bought a place in Florida,” Peer said. But Quinlynn told her the caiman wasn’t in Florida but in Prior Lake and on their beach.
The caiman washed up near the edge of Peer’s dock, still slightly submerged. After tapping it with a paddle to see if it was real, she told her grandfather about what she’d found.
The family called the Department of Natural Resources. Department conservationist James Fogarty was on his way out of town and told Peer to put the caiman on ice for a few days.
Peer’s learned that caimans, as cold-blooded reptiles, can become dormant and still in low temperatures. She said she’s happy she didn’t know that when she got Quinlynn to pose with the caiman she took to calling Mr. Chopps.
Mr. Chopps has filled Peer and Quinlynn’s lives with a bevy of excitement: first the viral Facebook post by a family friend, then calls from news stations and the American.
Peer said her granddaughter has soaked up every minute of it talking with the department, giving interviews and starting to consider a career in wildlife management.
“She’s learning a lot from this, which I so love,” Peer said.
Department spokesman Harland Hiemstra said Tuesday that the agency is still investigating the reptile’s source, but one of Peer’s neighbors came forward earlier in the week claiming it was his 2-year-old caiman, Big Head.
Hudson was unavailable for an interview by press time on Thursday but told Fox 9 News that he purchased it at a Bloomington animal show.
Hudson told the news channel that the caiman had been in an outdoor enclosure when a July storm blew some debris into his yard, allowing the reptile to escape. He decided to keep the disappearance quiet.
“What do you say to your neighbors? ‘Hey, I’m missing a pet alligator or caiman or whatever’? Yeah, right,” Hudson said.
Laura Windels, the president of the Minnesota Herpetological Society, said the best course of action would be to contact animal control, though the society typically warns against owning these kinds of reptiles in the first place.
“Dwarf caimans have a reputation for being particularly cantankerous crocodilians,” Windels wrote in an email. “Perhaps even more so than alligators, dwarf caimans do not make great pets for even the most advanced keepers and MHS does not recommend them.”
Windels’s warning is warranted, Hiemstra said. In his 23-year career with the department, he’s only heard of one other incident involving an alligator — and things didn’t go well for the alligator.
In 2013, department officers shot an alligator on Goose Lake in Scandia after it started stealing bait from local fisherman. Hiemstra said the agency got calls from Minnesotans frustrated that the reptile had been shot.
“I said to (the caller), ‘Well, ma’am, how do you capture an alligator?’ And there was this long pause, and she said, ‘I don’t know,’” Hiemstra said. “And we don’t, either, because it’s not a situation we deal with regularly.”
Not all alligator escapes end on a mournful note.
In 2015, a pet alligator name Roger escaped for 30 hours in Woodbury before being returned to his owner by local police. In 2016, members of the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s and Case County Sheriff’s Office caught two alligators in 10 days, turning both over a local wildlife park.
Peer said her granddaughter asked Fogarty if she could get Mr. Chopps back following the investigation so she could get it taxidermied.
“Oh, it’s staying at her house,” Peer said with a laugh. “I’m sure my daughter doesn’t want it to come back.”
Many of Prior Lake’s parks are nearing the end of their usable life, showing signs of wear, redundancy and accessibility issues, a consultant’s year-long review of parks and trails found.
Consultants from the engineering planning and design firm WSB recommended redeveloping or replacing two of the more than 60 city parks each year to keep up with maintenance and industry best practices. That could mean a big bill on the horizon for the city and taxpayers.
“That was kind of a gut-check, quite honestly,” Mayor Kirt Briggs said. The report found most parks are still in working order, but city staff estimated the city hadn’t done major work on any of its parks for more than a decade.
During a two hour tour of several high-priority parks, including Lakefront, Eagle Brook, Sand Point Beach, and Sunset Hills parks, WSB senior landscape architect Candace Amberg and Senior Director of Municipal Services Monica Heil told city officials many of the city’s parks could do with a face lift — things like an update to playground equipment or the addition of resident requested WiFi.
Amberg noted spending on any major updates would bring on another issue for the city: compliance with the American Disabilities Act, which requires that public facilities be accessible for people with disabilities.
In some parks that would mean switching out sand and wood chips out for rubberized playground surfaces; in others, it could mean redoing the sidewalks and parking. Failing to do so could open the city to lawsuits, Amberg said.
Council members said the next step is tallying costs. The council encouraged Amberg and Heil to come up with a cost analysis before they make their decisions on their top priorities for parks staff.
“I could fall in love with some projects and not with others based on price,” Councilman Zach Braid said.
Even without more definite numbers, the council seemed divided over how much work could reasonably be done. During the preliminary levy discussions in September, the council split over whether to accept a request by city staff submitted earlier this year for $90,000 to fix existing trails.
Councilwoman Annette Thompson said she realized the need for updates but the council needs to prioritize. She said the request for trail repair funds would likely be one of the first things cut from next year’s final budget, which will be set by the council on Dec. 2.
“Prior Lake is a growing community, every year we have more roads to plow, more traffic to move, more water and sewer to provide, police/fire needs,” Thompson wrote in an email Wednesday. “It’s a difficult task to balance.”
The city currently has 54 neighborhood parks, five community parks and over 100 miles of trails and sidewalks, according to WSB’s preliminary report. At that number, consultants say there are redundancies and gaps — some residents live within walking distance of several parks while others have no neighborhood park.
The city currently has 38 developed parks, meaning there’s about one park per 690 residents. The National Parks and Recreation Association recommends a ratio closer to one park per 1,849 residents. On the other hand, the city has only a third of the recommended outdoor tennis courts its size.
Several council members said the parks identified as excessive or overlapping would be a good place to start to make changes — hopefully saving the city in maintenance costs that could be redistributed to updating and rehabbing the equipment at the remaining parks.