Haddonfield's popular Hopkins Pond and a surrounding park are expected to remain closed today after the discovery of what appeared to be a four-foot alligator that evaded capture yesterday.
A zoo expert said the toothy reptile "could inflict injury" but, because of its relatively small size, was more a threat to small pets than humans.
"It's not going to go rampaging through neighborhoods, but I would not take my tea-cup poodle on a walk around that pond," said Andrew Baker, vice president for animal programs at the Philadelphia Zoo.
The alligator, believed to be someone's abandoned pet, was first spotted by a woman walking in the park yesterday morning and later by a Camden County park police officer.
Soon, the popular retreat near Grove Street and Hopkins Avenue had the look of a crime scene, with yellow police tape keeping the curious at bay.
And school officials were issuing unusual warnings to parents.
"A strange but important notice" is what Central Middle School principal Noah Tennant put in the subject line of an e-mail to parents.
"We have been notified that someone let loose a 4-foot 'pet' alligator in Hopkins Pond," his e-mail went on to say. "Police have warned community members not to walk by the pond until they are able to capture the animal. . . . Please join our efforts in keeping our children away from the area until it is safe."
The school district, itself, led by example. It canceled outdoor recess at nearby Tatem Elementary School and children in the after-school program there were kept indoors.
But there was no keeping onlookers away.
"This is big for Haddonfield," said Shirley Longbottom, 73, as she walked in the direction of the park after being told an alligator was loose only two blocks from her house.
Standing with his skateboarding buddies along Hopkins Avenue, 12-year-old Charlie O'Neill cooed: "It's cool."
Sgt. William Draham of the Camden County Park Police said he got to the park yesterday just in time to see the alligator slip under water.
"It appeared to be eating," he said.
For an alligator, the pond is a veritable smorgasbord of temptations: fish, duck and other delectables.
Not that alligators are fussy.
"They feed on anything they can swallow," said the zoo's Baker.
Hence, the closing of the pond and the park while experts from New Jersey Fish and Wildlife figure out what to do next.
Gators have been found in the Philadelphia region before - all most likely bathtub pets that outgrew captivity. A 4-foot-7 American alligator was pulled from the Wissahickon Creek in 1995. That breed can grow to 12 feet and weigh 600 pounds.
Alligator ownership is illegal in New Jersey but unregulated in Pennsylvania, except in Philadelphia and Reading, where pet alligators are forbidden.
Even though Hopkins Pond leads into the Cooper River, which flows into the Delaware River, Baker said the alligator would not be able to get far south enough to ensure its long-term survival.
"Unless it's found," he said, "it's going to die this winter."
That led him to launch into a bit of a lecture about the need for people to understand their limits when getting a pet.
"I really strongly encourage people to think long and hard before they get anything other than a cat or a dog," he said.