Aaron Conrad of Lutz was among those not buying that photo of a two-headed alligator on tbt*'s cover Monday.
"I am going to have to call fake on your picture," he wrote in an email. "The gator looks dried and stuffed like something from a tourist shop. The front and back legs aren't even touching the ground and the tail looks dead. The skin looks like it is covered in lacquer. I think you need to take a closer look. I think you have been had."
Yes, indeed it seems we were.
But was that alligator, as Monty Python would describe it, an ex-gator and "bleedin' demised," or was it a quite adept piece of Photoshopping?
The answer is proving elusive. The reader who sent us the photo, Justin Arnold, was ducking our efforts — and those of several TV stations — to contact him on Monday.
He did attach a chatty note to the photo when he sent it to tbt* on the weekend. "My wife and I were walking our dog in Seminole Heights when we noticed a few people gathered near the river," Arnold wrote. "We went over and saw that there was a two-headed alligator on the river bank. I called a friend who works for Fish and Game and he told me that it was not all that uncommon and reptiles and amphibians often have failed separation of a monozygotic twins creating two headed animals. I Googled it and that appears to be true."
He wasn't the only person to send a photo of the gator to tbt*. Andy Stern did, too. "I've never seen anything like it!" he wrote. "I don't know if anyone else may have seen it, but I thought I should send this in to you in case you've gotten other reports."
On Monday, Stern told tbt* he was walking near Epps Park in Seminole Heights on Friday when his dog started barking at the shore. "I looked over and saw the gator and obviously was in shock," he wrote in an email. "I got close enough to take that picture but didn't want to get any closer. It didn't move while I was there and I wasn't about to give it a reason to!"
Alas, as the hunt for the two-headed gator was mounted Monday, skepticism quickly emerged.
WTSP-10 News reported that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had no reports of a two-headed alligator in the area. University of Florida professor Dr. Frank Mazzotti (the "Croc Doc") told WTSP that "conventional knowledge is that when these deformities occur, the hatchlings do not survive unless cared for (by humans) and often, not even then." But he did allow that the chance of finding a two-headed alligator in the wild is "not impossible."
Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute noted that Justin Arnold has a collection of "astonishing photos on his Tumblr, including a fur-bearing trout and other oddities. One posting of a mythical water creature was reportedly captured by Arnold two hundred years ago." Tompkins pointed out that there were no tracks of the gator's claws or tail in the mud.
WTVT-Fox13 was also skeptical, but said some viewers had reached out to say they had seen "something similar" in the area before.
With Justin Arnold not returning our calls, we turned back to Andy Stern with the direct question: "Do you think it was a hoax?"
Stern replied: "All I know is what I saw," he said. "I'm no zoologist."
The conspiracists no doubt will think that Justin Arnold and Andy Stern were in cahoots in this affair. But here at tbt*, we will simply accept the egg on our face — and view reader photos with much more skepticism in the future.