OAKLAND -- In the wake of the passing of "Mr. Teeth," a 5-foot-long reptile found guarding a marijuana stash at an upscale Castro Valley home, police said they have now slapped the creature's owner with animal abuse charges.
The dwarf caiman, which had been kept in a 2-foot-by-8-foot tank, died overnight at the Oakland Zoo's veterinary hospital, a day after Alameda County sheriff's deputies found it at a Castro Valley home along with 34 pounds of marijuana.
The animal arrived at the zoo "critically ill and nonresponsive," Oakland Zoo spokeswoman Nicky Mora said.
Police on Thursday said the reptile, thought to be 16 years old, was undernourished and kept in inadequate living conditions at a home in the 19000 block of Mount Jasper Road.
His owner, Assif Mayar, 32, was arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of possession for marijuana for sale and possession of marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school, Sgt. Steve Lenthe said. Fish and wildlife officials also cited Mayar with possession of a restricted-species live animal, a misdemeanor that carries a fine of as much as $3,000 and a year in jail.
"In light of these new events we've now filed an animal cruelty charge against him," Lenthe said Thursday.
Neighbors of the home where Mayar lived with his wife and 2-year-old son said they had never seen the animal during the two years the family lived there.
Police went to the home after receiving a tip that Mayar was selling marijuana and found "Mr. Teeth," which police initially thought was an alligator, reportedly guarding drugs in a bedroom of the two-story home.
The home is nestled in the Palomares Hills development, a tidy neighborhood with well-manicured lawns and a stone-pillared entrance. Children play in the yards just west of Jensen Ranch Elementary School.
The neighborhood hosts frequent block parties and displays a "Welcome" sign on most every door.
The reptile was confined to the plexiglass tank, on top of a wooden pedestal in a bedroom of the home, police said. Mayar told police he purchased the reptile when it was small, fed it rats and never took it out of the tank.
"We were told he was very stressed out when he got to the zoo," Lenthe said. "He should have been in heated water and in a much bigger tank with better lighting. He was undernourished."
A necropsy will be performed to determine the reptile's cause of death, Mora said.
Margaret Rousser, zoological manager at the Oakland Zoo, said the dwarf caiman is the smallest member of the crocodilian family -- only about 20 pounds full grown.
"They eat mostly invertebrates as hatchlings and then branch out to crustaceans, fish and small mammals as they grow larger," she said.
In the wild, their life span can average 20-40 years, Rousser said. If they are well cared-for in captivity, they can live as long as 60 years.
"It is important to note that these animals require a large amount of space, specific heating and lighting requirements, high water quality, and a specialized diet," she said. "Any deviation from these requirements can have long-term health consequences for the animal. Exotic animals such as crocodilians should never be kept as pets. Even if it were not illegal in California, there are very few people who have the knowledge and resources to provide adequate care to such highly specialized animals."
Jennifer Fearing, California state director for The Humane Society of the United States, said keeping this sort of animal as a pet is illegal in California for a "good reason."
"Wild animals as pets are a threat to public health and safety as well as animal welfare," she said.
Sgt. J.D. Nelson said the caiman was likely used as a deterrent for burglars.
Mayar purchased the caiman in 1996 "to commemorate the death of rapper Tupac Shakur," Nelson said.
Nelson said Mayar did not have a permit to own an exotic animal, which is required.
Mayar was arraigned at the Hayward Hall of Justice Thursday. A judge set his bail at $20,000. He is scheduled to appear back in court Jan. 15.
Caimans resemble alligators, zoo officials said. They are native to tropical regions of Central and South America, where they live near rivers, streams and other bodies of water. Caimans average about 4 to 6 feet in length and have long, thick tails and elongated snouts, as do alligators.
Police learned about the marijuana at the home after an anonymous caller left a voice mail on the Sheriff's Office narcotics tip line.
Contact Natalie Neysa Alund at 510-293-2469. Contact Erin Ivie at 925-847-2122.