When Detective Victor Mendes busted into a suspected drug house last month, he figured he'd find cocaine and cash. He didn't expect the alligator on guard.

"It's the new status thing," said Mendes, a member of the New Bedford Police narcotics squad. "They use the things as weapons, to intimidate."In the last three months, police in this port city have crossed paths with four alligators or caimans, relatives of alligators and crocodiles.

In Lakewood, Colo., last year, officers had to wrestle a 4-footer named "Sweetie" while evicting a tenant. In Connecticut, a pet store owner became a temporary zoo-keeper during a spate of reptile abandonments. And in San Francisco, a caiman famed for "ferocious leaping attacks" was stolen from a zoo.

The big reptiles have been illegal in Massachusetts since the early 1970s. But federal wildlife authorities said each state makes its own law on reptile ownership.

Criminals might just like the fact that the animals are illegal.

"They've graduated from pit bulls to alligators," Mendes said.

Most officials interviewed agreed that caimans, which can reach 6 feet in length, provide owners with more bark than bite. The animals, if not starved or provoked, usually won't hurt strangers.