HAYWARD -- Prosecutors have filed a felony drug charge against a man who they say used a critically ill, 5-foot-long reptile to guard his Castro Valley pot stash, but declined to file animal cruelty charges after the creature's death.
A necropsy conducted at the Oakland Zoo revealed the dwarf caiman, named Mr. Teeth, had fluid in its lungs and died from acute pneumonia, Eamon O'Conner, a spokesman for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, said Tuesday. But the procedure gave no definitive answer as to how or when the caiman developed the infection so investigators could not determine who was responsible for it getting sick.
"Investigators were unable to attribute the pneumonia to any particular act or series of events," O'Conner said.
On Jan. 8, Alameda County Sheriff's Office deputies visited a home on the 19000 block of Mount Jasper Road where 32-year-old Assif Mayar lived with his wife and 2-year-old son, after receiving a tip that Mayar was selling marijuana. Inside they found Mr. Teeth, initially thought to be an alligator, guarding 34 pounds of marijuana in a bedroom of the two-story home.
The reptile was confined to a 2-foot-by-8-foot plexiglass tank on top of a wooden pedestal in a bedroom of the home, police said. Mayar told police he purchased the reptile when it was small, fed it rats and never took it out of the tank.
Deputies arrested Mayer on suspicion of felony possession of marijuana for sale and later
Mr. Teeth died the following day at the Oakland Zoo's veterinary hospital, where it had arrived "critically ill and nonresponsive," Oakland Zoo spokeswoman Nicky Mora said.
Police said the caiman, purchased in 1996 to commemorate the death of rapper Tupac Shakur, was likely used as a deterrent for burglars. Police also said Mayar did not have the permit required to own an exotic animal.
Mayer pleaded not guilty to the drug charge, and is due in court at the Hayward Hall of Justice for a hearing on April 5. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.
In addition, fish and wildlife officials have cited him with possession of a restricted-species live animal, a misdemeanor that carries a fine of as much as $3,000 and a year in jail.
Caimans resemble alligators, zoo officials said. They are native to tropical regions of Central and South America, where they live near rivers, streams and other bodies of water. Caimans average about 4 to 6 feet in length and have long, thick tails and elongated snouts, as do alligators.
Margaret Rousser, zoological manager at the Oakland Zoo, said the dwarf caiman is the smallest member of the crocodilian family -- only about 20 pounds full grown. They eat mostly invertebrates as hatchlings and then branch out to crustaceans, fish and small mammals as they grow larger, she said.
In the wild, their life span can average 20 to 40 years and if well cared-for in captivity, can live as long as 60 years.
"It is important to note that these animals require a large amount of space, specific heating and lighting requirements, high water quality, and a specialized diet," she said. "Any deviation from these requirements can have long-term health consequences for the animal."
Contact Natalie Neysa Alund at 510-293-2469. Follow her at Twitter.com/nataliealund.