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Hunting the Monster of Machado Lake

Times Staff Writer

Like the best creature tales, this one begins with something lurking in a lake.

The story has been unfolding in Harbor City, just north of San Pedro, where people have packed into Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park for three days. They scan the water for a glimpse of what authorities believe is a spectacled caiman, a crocodile cousin from Central and South America.

The reptile, which has a jaw like a steel trap, has been playing hide-and-seek in Machado Lake with its hunters, who are armed with just a few nets and a raw chicken.

A park gardener first spotted something about 2 p.m. on Friday darting across the nearly 50-acre lake on the park’s western end. Chief Ranger Albert Torres rushed to the shoreline.

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“It was like a film where you see eyes on the waterline and a back coming out of the water, just briefly,” he said Sunday.

Park visitors begin telling rangers they had seen it, too.

“One fellow said he was fishing and it came up on shore. He said he cast the line out and hooked it,” said Kevin Regan, assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. “Someone said kids were throwing tortillas at it, flour tortillas.”

Officials estimate the scaly green creature is 6 to 8 feet long and weighs nearly 200 pounds.

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“They’ll swallow anything, and if they can’t swallow it, they’ll tear pieces until they can eat it,” said Jarron Lucas, who runs research and workshops for the Southwestern Herpetologist Society, which park rangers asked to help with the hunt.

Lucas thinks the caiman was probably dumped by a pet owner who no longer wanted it.

On Saturday, those crowding the shore heaved French bread and jelly doughnuts at any ripple. The caiman didn’t bite, but it did peek out of the water several times.

Once, the caiman “hunched his back and tried to scare people off the shore,” Lucas said. “He was trying to show, ‘I’m really big so you better get out of here.’ We threw a raw chicken in, but all the people were leering, so it swam back and forth,” he said.

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The caiman reappeared about 1 p.m. to sunbathe on a grassy swath on the shore. A small metal lifeguard boat motored to its side, but it flopped under the water and was soon gone.

In an effort to lure it back up, officials have tied a 2- to 3-pound chicken to a plastic soda bottle and floated it offshore. If the bottle dips, they plan to throw a giant cone-shaped net over the caiman and drag it to shore. They just hope it’s hungry, since they say the caiman can stay below for up to 48 hours.

“We’ll wrap his nose, and then blindfold him and then hogtie him,” Lucas said. They hope to take the caiman alive and at least temporarily give it a home at the Los Angeles Zoo.

But by Sunday evening nothing had worked. Folks -- some still in their church clothes -- lounged in camp chairs with binoculars and video cameras, though officials said it might take a month to capture the creature. Those watching were kept 60 to 80 feet from the shore behind yellow police tape, and signs warned of the danger.

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“It’s such an urban area, people just don’t see [wildlife], and people run across it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, nature!’ It scares them,” said Bonnie Lea, a member of the herpetologist society.

Peter Russell, 28, and his wife breakfasted at a local cafe, then drove their 1 year-old son to their neighborhood park.

“You’ve got to hold my hand. You don’t want the alligator to get you,” he teased little Seth.

Cheyenne Espinoza, 8, tried to bring a metal bat from her Harbor City home, but her father said no.

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“I was going to knock the gator out,” the girl explained.

She and her father -- and the 11 people with them -- were interrupted when the lake started to ripple.

“There it is!” someone yelled, but it was the wind, not Harbor City’s swamp thing.


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