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ALVIN, Texas (AP) — When Troy Stuart walks into the atrium at the First National Bank of Alvin, he’s met by two familiar green and scaly faces: Lizzy and Lucy, the bank’s resident guard gators.

The Houston Chronicle reports Stuart closes the door behind him and laughs. Lucy and Lizzy grip the curb at the side of their in-ground pool and pull their upper bodies out of the water. Their eyes are glued on Stuart, and they both open their powerful jaws, showing rows of massive teeth.

They’re smiling.

Stuart laughs at them. Showboating clowns.

He drops a pail of chicken breasts on his right side and grabs a bamboo stick. He smiles as he peels the lid off the pail and pierces the first piece of chicken with the end of the stick, offering it to Lucy.

She lunges at it, and he scolds her affectionately: “Don’t be pushy.”

Lucy clamps her snout closed and slurps back the chicken as Lizzy jockeys for Stuart’s attention. She’d like a piece too, please.

“You ready?” he asks, stabbing another piece of chicken and holding it out about a foot over Lizzy’s head.

She sits beneath, like a well-trained puppy waiting for its owner to bring a treat down to her level.

“Oh come on, chicken,” Stuart teases, as he lowers the stick and she gently tugs the chicken away.

For Stuart, the bank’s head of maintenance, it’s just another Friday.

The First Bank of Alvin has been home to alligators for nearly half a century. In 1969, a rice farmer donated three 6-inch gator hatchlings to the bank, to live in its goldfish pond, according to an Associated Press story, published in 1983. The trio — J. Paul Gator, Mitzi Gator and William Teller Gator — soon grew to be about 7 feet long, and became a major attraction for locals. The goldfish didn’t last long.

By the late ’70s, the gators had become such a celebrated part of the bank that when owner A. Guy Crouch made plans to move to a new $4 million facility, he spent $250,000 to build them a habitat: an open courtyard with an in-ground pool and a couple of waterfalls, right at the glassed-in center of the bank’s five-story building. The Alligatrium, he called it.

Since then, J. Paul, Mitzi and William Teller have all gone the way of the goldfish. And in the mid-’90s, the bank came close to being de-gatored.

“We bought the bank back in 1995, and the first thing we said was, ‘We’re gonna get rid of these damn alligators,'” says Randy Ferguson, the bank’s current owner.

But that, he found, was easier said than done. The gators were the bank’s brand.

The bank’s phone service was branded as Gator Tel; overdraft protection was Gator Aid. Then there was the logo: a giant smiling alligator drawn into the “F” in First National.

Around that time, Ferguson says, on a flight to Dallas, the stranger sitting next to him asked what he did for a living.

“I’m a banker,” Ferguson replied. “We just acquired the First National Bank of Alvin.”

“The alligator bank?” asked the man.

So the alligators stayed. “They’re better known than we are,” Ferguson says.

Stuart, the gator keeper, grew up in Alvin — his family moved there when he was in middle school — so he always knew about the gators. But he didn’t see them himself until seven years ago. He first walked into the bank at age 50 to interview for an opening on the maintenance team.

He knew part of the job would entail feeding the alligators, but he grew up on a farm, and is confident around animals. So, no sweat.

“They were kind of out-of-control when I got here,” he says. The previous maintenance worker used to open the alligatrium door, toss in some food — everything from dog food, to chicken necks and the occasional steak splurge, according to that old AP story — and leave again.

“You can’t do that,” says Stuart. He called a friend at the Houston Zoo, who offered tips. Stuart bought the bamboo pole, and began nudging the alligators’ nostrils with it, to urge them to move back when he was in the room. Over time, he got Lucy, who was at the bank when he arrived, and Lizzy, who showed up about a year later, to remain in the pool when he feeds them.

“They’re like puppies in some ways,” Stuart says, dotingly. “They’ve got a little brain. But if you train them not to do things, they won’t do it.”

He thinks of them as puppies, or some kind of pets. Often, during his Tuesday and Friday morning feeding sessions, he’ll chat with them and laugh, as people do with dogs and cats. He asks how their day is going. Sometimes he’ll comment on the weather or poke fun at them. They rarely talk politics.

“You go out there and talk to them, and they don’t say a word,” he says. “People think I’m crazy. They want to get me in a straitjacket — ‘Why are you talking to an alligator?’ — well, they need to hear my voice, so they know who I am.”

He’s grown so fond of them that he longer eats gator nuggets at seafood restaurants, even though they’re delicious. And you won’t find him sporting alligator boots.

But still, he knows they’re not pets.

“They’re dangerous. When I say they’re puppies, they’ll follow me around, if I’m out there cleaning or doing something. The other day, they weren’t letting me do anything,” he says.

They kept coming up behind him, and Lucy would hiss loudly, trying to scare him.

“They were a little aggressive, so I was like, ‘Nope!'” he says.

Even so, the twice-a-week feedings are the highlight of a jack-of-all-trades job that, in addition to gator wrangling, also includes information technology work and basic maintenance. In theory, the feeding could be over in two or three minutes, but Stuart stretches it out, playing with Lizzy and Lucy as he feeds them piece by piece.

By the end, they’re stuffed and struggle to keep eating. Rather than tipping her snout up to catch chicken, Lizzy keeps it resting on the surface.

“Come on,” he joke-chides. “Come on, you gonna be lazy this morning?”

She sets her right paw on the pool’s curb and pulls herself up slightly. Stuart feigns exasperation as he lowers the chicken, so it’s an easy grab.

“There you go,” he coos.


Information from: Houston Chronicle,