updated 3/6/2009 9:31:27 PM ET 2009-03-07T02:31:27

A 4-foot-long alligator is accused of starting a fire at an abandoned school in western Pennsylvania.

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North Beaver Township officials say the owner of the former elementary school that burned near New Castle, about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, was living with a menagerie of animals in the building. That included an alligator, about 70 rabbits and unspecified "aquatic animals."

The owner believes the alligator knocked over a portable heater onto some papers, starting the blaze Thursday afternoon, Fire Chief Paul Henry said.

Firefighters removed the animal, but only after a wildlife official taped its mouth shut.

"I basically got on top of it," Wes Osborne, of Crit-R-Done Wildlife Control, was quoted as saying by KARE-TV in Minneapolis. "One of the fellows in there had already handled it a little bit by the tail, and we were able to duct-tape it to keep anybody from getting bit."

Henry said the fire caused a "fair amount" of damage to the building.

The Fish and Game Commission said no laws were broken, so they're turning all the animals back over to the owner.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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