November 18, 2013
By Glenda Isaacs Burgeson
Like any good research project, the search for a former pet alligator at SJU raised more questions than it answered. As the story unfolded, this was not the first search for Fafnir, the beloved pet of SJU alumnus Vincent "Bob" Hunt '56.
It all started this semester when Hunt visited SJU's New Science Center with questions about the reptile he kept in his dorm room for four years. He encountered Beth Pettitt, CSB/SJU adjunct professor of biology, and told her his story.
Sixty-one years ago, Hunt left Saint John's in the spring to attend medical school and gave Fafnir to his biology professor, Fr. Adelard Thuente.
(Fafnir was something of an escape artist, and his antics were reported in The Record. His escape from the dorm in 1956 and subsequent capture was reported, as was a 1955 story that Fafnir sometimes escaped the confines of his living quarters in Hunt's dorm room, much to the alarm of Hunt's roommate. The Record also explained the gator's unusual moniker, inspired by a mythical dragon slain by the German hero Siegfried.)
As Hunt later learned, Fr. Adelard handed over custody of Fafnir to another monk, who built a pen for him. Fafnir lived up to his reputation and escaped shortly thereafter. That fall, a fisherman at Stumpf Lake was startled to see an alligator sunning on a rock. He rushed to the abbey to report his finding. A monk captured the reptile with a net, but it died within days.
Hunt believes Fr. Adelard had the alligator stuffed to add to the Biology Department's collection of wildlife specimens in the Natural History Museum. In his conversation with Pettitt, he wondered whether his old pet was still at Saint John's and, if so, whether he could reclaim it.
Pettitt shared the story with her colleague, Marcus Webster, professor of biology, and the two of them took on the investigation. They located a stuffed alligator among the department's collection and notified Hunt, who agreed to return to campus.
Hunt is retired from the medical profession after a career in family medicine at Brown University and work in Africa with the World Health Organization. On Nov. 8, he drove to campus from his home in Hudson, Wis., for the reunion.
Bill Lamberts, associate professor and chair of biology, was on hand to welcome him, and a photographer documented the exchange.
Despite all the excitement, a few nagging questions persist. Is the stuffed alligator the real Fafnir? For that matter, how do we know the alligator captured in Stumpf Lake was the real Fafnir? The stuffed animal presented to Hunt is larger than the pet he left behind, but Fafnir would have stuffed himself with the lake's aquatic all-you-can-eat buffet. Would gluttony account for the growth spurt?
Hunt isn't sure. This much we know: Judging by that grin spread across the gator's face, Fafnir had the last laugh.