Mary Lou, an American alligator. | Credit: Santa Barbara Zoo

Mary Lou, an American alligator and the Santa Barbara Zoo’s oldest resident, arrived with a male companion in an unusual way. It was 1964, just a year after the zoo opened. 

“A little boy showed up one day holding out a shoebox with two little alligators inside, and said ‘Mister, will you take care of my alligators?’” remembers the director at the time, Ted McToldridge. ‘“My mommy won’t let me keep them.’ And so we took them into our care.”

After a long and healthy life, Mary Lou died this weekend at 58 years old. American alligators generally live until around 50.

Mary Lou succumbed to “multiple severe pathologies” that came from a “generalized bacterial infection suspected to have originated from the reproductive tract,” said Dr. Julie Barnes, the zoo’s vice president of animal care. “Despite our efforts to reverse her symptoms, she did not respond to treatment. Tissue samples have been submitted and we will likely know more when we get the histopathology results in a few weeks.”

“Mary Lou was the oldest animal at the zoo, both in years lived and years in residence,” said Director Nancy McToldridge. “That made her very special. She was known and loved, not only by staff and guests, but also by crocodilian enthusiasts across the country. We will miss her very much.”

Declared endangered in 1967 due to habitat loss and hunting for their skins, American alligator numbers have since rebounded, and they’re now considered one of the first endangered species success stories. Today, over a million alligators can be found in the swamps and wetlands of the American southeast.

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