SALEM, Wis. – Michael Wilk was tossing back a few beers with friends when he saw God on the side of his 4-foot-long pet alligator.

Without even squinting, Wilk noticed white markings pop out against a backdrop of black scales to form the letters G-O-D.

“When I first saw it, my jaw dropped,” said Wilk, 25. “It’s just sort of like a phenomenon on it.”

That’s been the reaction of almost everyone who has seen the gator. They liken its markings to images resembling the Virgin Mary that have appeared on everything from a grilled cheese sandwich to a viaduct under the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. One such Madonna image appeared on the wall of a house after a fire in Mexico, Maine, in January.

Wilk, a home remodeler with hopes of one day starting up an alligator farm, did not notice the gator’s unusual markings when it was given to him in December by another Wisconsin man who could no longer care for it.

Wilk said he and a friend, who houses the gator in another town, wanted to rehabilitate the reptile, which was skinny and small despite being 12 years old.

Then a couple of weeks later, when they were hanging out in Wilk’s basement, the letters jumped out at them.

“I was thinking when the guy gave him to us that he was trying to hoax us,” Wilk said. “But it’s not Wite-Out or anything – it’s real.”

Alligators have naturally occurring, unique striping patterns that help camouflage them in the wild, said Harry Dutton, an alligator biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The markings appear to be legitimate and not done with a marker or by scratching the hide, Dutton said after reviewing pictures of Wilk’s alligator.

Kent Vliet, an alligator biologist at the University of Florida, agreed. “That looks natural to me,” Vliet said after looking at the photos. “I would suspect that’s not been altered.”

Dutton said the striping probably will fade over time or the gator’s overall color may become darker as it grows larger. For now, the reptile’s bold markings are drawing attention among Wilk’s friends and family.

Lee Watson, who has run a reptile swap in Streamwood, Ill., for the last 15 years, saw Wilk’s gator about a month ago and couldn’t believe his eyes.

“It is interesting because you can pick up on it so fast, just looking at it,” Watson said.

Wilk’s sister Lisa Wilk, 35, who lives in Oak Park, Ill., said that at first she was skeptical.

“I’m like, oh yeah, right. No way,” she said. Then she saw photos and video. Now she calls it “an amazing creature.”

The gator’s home is a 450-gallon artificial pond where it feeds on raw chicken, steak and frozen mice, Wilk said.

Wilk said he and his friend, who didn’t want to be named in this story, couldn’t keep the alligator to themselves.

“We just thought it should be out there,” Wilk said.

Though most folks who have seen or heard of Wilk’s gator share a sense of amazement, they don’t see a higher meaning behind the letters on its hide.

The Rev. Philip Wilde, a pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in nearby Bristol, said he views the markings as a coincidence of nature.

“Obviously it’s there because God wanted it to be that way,” said Wilde, who has not seen the gator. “But I don’t see any special message in that.”

Wilk, who was raised Roman Catholic but does not attend a church, said the creature hasn’t affected him spiritually:

“We don’t sit around with candles worshiping this animal, if that’s what you mean.”

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