MOUNT AIRY - The rain pounded down hard that Saturday night a month ago, steadily filling the small, plastic pool where Spot plays.
The wind roared as the water level rose, lifting Spot, a caiman alligator, closer to the pool's rim.
Spot normally spends his days munching chicken and goldfish in a 10-gallon aquarium in Wayne Kuster's house on Boteler Road. But on summer weekends, Kuster plops Spot into the backyard pool, where the 18-inch reptile floats in the water and soaks up sun for a day or two.
At some point during that stormy night, Kuster speculates, the pool overflowed, spilling Spot over the side and into a foreign world, the 3 -acre grassy grounds around Kuster's home.
"I felt really bad because we're responsible for him," he said.
For two days, Kuster and his girlfriend, Kim Sabel, scoured the yard looking for the 1-year-old Spot.
They overturned every rock and stick on the property, but came up empty-handed. The grass hadn't been cut for days because Kuster's malfunctioning lawn mower was awaiting parts. The long, lush grass made the search even harder.
Kuster and Sable filed a report with local police and posted fliers around town asking for information on the lost alligator.
All they could do was wait.
At first, they worried Spot would be trampled by a cow, maimed by a big dog, or flattened by a car.
But by last weekend, with the onset of cool, autumn-like nights, they feared Spot would freeze to death. Caimans, native to the jungles and rivers of Central and South America, require carefully controlled, temperate environments.
"We'd just about given up," Kuster said. "With this week's cold weather, it probably would've been the end of him."
A caiman is far from a traditional house pet, but among Kuster's and Sabel's collection of animals, you'd barely notice him missing.
Among their menagerie of peculiar creatures are Mac, the noisy blue-and-gold macaw; Mary and Larry, the slithering ball pythons; a Sudanese plated lizard; a variety of parrots; a ferret; and two bounding, mostly playful Rottweilers.
There are not many creatures that they haven't owned over the years. It seems as if there's no creature they wouldn't welcome as a pet. But Sable has to draw the line somewhere.
"I hate spiders," she said. "I'll hold a 22-foot-long snake, but I hate spiders."
Kuster is a man who brings his work home with him -- literally. He's an animal control officer for Montgomery County.
"People call me the dog catcher," he said. "I wish I had time to catch dogs."
Many of the strange pets he's had over the years were abandoned or turned in by people who bought them and realized they didn't know how to handle them.
"A lot of people get exotic pets and don't know what to do with them," he said. "So they call us. I get all the unusual stuff. That's always been my forte."
Unusual pets in general are becoming more popular, said Nicky Ratliff, director of the Humane Society of Carroll County.
"We're in an era where people are getting a lot of strange pets," he said. "They want something different."
But the recent parade of bizarre pets in homes can pose problems for animal control staffs. At 18 inches long, a pet like Spot doesn't present much of a threat when it's on the loose.
However, caimans are becoming more sought after as pets -- there are up to 20 in Carroll, Ratliff estimated -- and although most don't survive long in a domestic setting, those that do can grow to 8 feet. And they get nasty.
"If you want an animal that you can cuddle in your lap, you don't want a caiman," said Michael Davenport, manager of the reptile collection at the National Zoo in Washington.
Said Kuster, "They're not like American alligators, which tame down after a while. They stay nasty."
Caimans are near the bottom of the list of weird -- and potentially dangerous -- animals that Ratliff's department has been called out to handle over the years in Carroll. That list includes a lion, a jaguar, wolves and buffaloes, along with the more mundane dogs and cats.
Now, the County Commissioners are working on legislation that would set guidelines on the keeping of strange animals, Ratliff said. Still in draft form, the guidelines will spell out the types of confinement requirements for a variety of unusual pets, including caimans.
The measure likely will include requiring pet owners to register peculiar animals.
"If you have something unusual, whether it be a llama or an elephant, I would like to know who owns it," he said. "It's the same thing we use dog tags for. It's just a way for getting them back."
Ratliff says the legislation, due to be introduced in the coming months, is as much for the safety of the animals as for protection of the public.
"That way, the people who don't want to get up in the morning and find (a caiman) in their carport won't have to," he said.
Spot never made it into anyone's carport. Last weekend, Kuster went out into the back yard to clean the pool, which had become covered with algae and cluttered with debris.
He poked at what he thought was a stick floating on the water. It moved.
It was Spot.
"Disbelief, that's the only way to describe it," he said.
Somehow, Spot managed to find his way back into the pool.
Kuster still considers the possibility that one of his friends kidnapped Spot as a prank. But he doesn't think such a jokester would've kept the reptile for more than a month.
"I can't imagine where he would've been," Kuster said. "That's going to drive me crazy."
Spot seemed a little shaken the first couple of days back, Sabel said, but has since returned to normal.
"He's got that sparkle back in his eye," she said.