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Wild Philly, from Bengal tigers to horny toads

Jerry Czech, a wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission who oversees Philadelphia, was talking to a dispatcher a couple weeks ago about bears. The topic always seems to come up in the spring.

“They wake up this time of year,” he says, “and they’re awful hungry. And they try eat everything under the sun to get their weight back. ”

And some do this eating in our Philadelphia backyards, like a black bear who wandered by a house on the Montgomery and Philadelphia county line last year. Some of the bears are native to the area, but many come from New Jersey, swimming across the Delaware. You probably won’t see a bear on Sansom Street, though. They tend to cross farther north.

Philly still has plenty of wildlife that feels out-of-place in the fifth largest city in America. Philadelphia is home to Eastern coyotes, bald eagles, a spring ritual known as the toad detour Then there are the “exotic” animals that are imported — experts tell Billy Penn these varieties are bought and sold on the black market and often used by drug dealers.

The wildlife doesn’t just hang around the far corners of Philadelphia, either. Czech says in the last couple years a deer ran on the train tracks of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge onto Delaware Avenue. Another deer once got hit by a car on 11th and Vine.

Spend enough time hanging around the Schuylkill or Delaware and you might see a beaver, a water snake or a river otter.

Or an alligator. People illegally buy alligators when they’re little and then they start getting big. Next thing you know, they’re wading in the Schuylkill. Czech says a person feeding ducks in Tacony Creek saw two alligators in Tacony Creek two years ago.

A combination of the police, the SPCA and the Pennsylvania Game Commission deal with these emergencies. Much of the time, the illegal wildlife comes from drug dealers, who purchase exotic animals because they have money to waste… or (in all seriousness) to fortify their drug dens.

Five or six years ago, Czech received a call from police who had raided a drug house and found two Bengal tiger cubs that were about the size of a large cat. He gets two or three calls like this a year. To deter thieves, he says, the dealers place alligators, venomous snakes, Komodo dragons, scorpions or similar animals in cages beneath windows. If a thief breaks in, he or she will step into the lair of a possibly lethal animal. A few weeks ago, authorities in Wilmington raided a drug house teeming with 16 monitor lizards.

If you’re more a fan of amphibians than reptiles and native, legal creatures instead of illegal ones the toad detour might be your best bet for witnessing some odd Philly wildlife. Nearly every night from April to June, volunteers close off streets around the Schuylkill Center in the Northwest corner of Philadelphia.

Toads come out on wet, warm nights. They leave the heavily-wooded areas of the Schuylkill Center for the abandoned Roxborough Reservoir, where they mate.

“It was reclaimed by nature,” volunteer Debbie Carr says.

This springtime ritual began in 2008. A worker at the Schuylkill Center saw what looked like a bunch of leaves moving across the road and upon closer inspection realized they were toads, vulnerable to any motorist speeding through to Manayunk. They got permission from police to set up barriers and for the last several years have closed down the intersections of Hagys Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue, Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street and Eva Street and Summit Avenue.

Volunteers like Carr catalogue the number of toads who cross and in some cases carry them across. Last year, the toad detour counted 2,400 adult toads. Some nights, hundreds will cross.

The drivers are usually nice and give a thumbs up when they realize they’re not allowed to use the roads because toads get the right of way. But not always. During one of the first years of the detour, a driver got out of his car and took a swing at a volunteer.

The male toads can get aggressive, too. They’re looking to mate and will latch on anything that gets close, from a stick to a person’s arm.

Most of Philadelphia’s wildlife is concentrated near the parks and rivers, like Fairmount Park, Pennypack Park and the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Eastern Coyotes sometimes wander around Pennypack Park in the Northeast, and one was recently hit near Father Judge High School.

Bald eagles fly and nest in Whitemarsh, just outside of Philadelphia, and at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, near the airport.

“It’s pretty neat,” Czech says. “You could be out fishing or down out at the park doing whatever and see bald eagles flying around.”

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