It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Jun 12, 2009

Sewer Alligators in New York

It was once a fad among New Yorkers vacationing in Florida to bring back baby alligators for their children to raise as pets. These infant gators eventually grew up and outlived their cuteness, sad to say, at which point their desperate owners flushed them down the toilet to get rid of them.
Some of these hastily disposed-of creatures managed to survive and breed in the dank Manhattan sewer system, so the story goes, producing colonies of giant, albino alligators beneath the streets of New York City. Their descendants thrive down there to this day, completely hidden (apart from the rare heart-stopping encounter between sewer gator and sewer worker, that is) from human eyes.

Analysis: Believe it or not there is a grain of truth behind this legend, namely the documented capture of an eight-foot alligator at the bottom of an East Harlem manhole in 1935 (though no one at the time assumed it actually lived down there). It was theorized at the time that the creature must have tumbled off a steamer visiting the northeast "from the mysterious Everglades, or thereabouts," and swam up the Harlem River. It met an unfortunate end at the hands of the teenage boys who found it.
Birth of an urban legend
The earliest published reference to alligators in the sewer — in what Jan Harold Brunvand refers to as the "standardized" form of the urban legend ("baby alligator pets, flushed, thrived in sewers") — can be found in the 1959 book, The World Beneath the City, a history of public utilities in New York City written by Robert Daley. Daley's source was a retired sewer official named Teddy May, who claimed that during his tenure in the 1930s he personally investigated workers' reports of subterranean saurians and saw a colony of them with his own eyes. He also claimed to have supervised their eradication. May was a colorful storyteller, if not a particularly reliable one.

'New York White'
The tale was well known throughout the United States by the late 1960s, when, according to folklorist Richard M. Dorson, it came to be associated with another icon of sewer lore, the mythical "New York White" — an especially potent, albino strain of marijuana growing wild from seeds spilled out of baggies hastily flushed down toilets during drug raids. Not that anyone had ever actually seen the stuff, much less smoked it. It was impossible to harvest, you see, because of all the alligators down there.

The reason we speak of all this as folklore, not fact, is that herpetologists pooh-pooh the very idea of alligators thriving in the New York City sewer system. It's cold down there most of the time, they point out — freezing cold during the winter — and alligators require a warm environment year-round to survive, much less reproduce and burgeon into colonies. And if the cold didn't kill them off, the polluted sewer water certainly would.

Actual New York City gator sightings:
Adding fodder to the legend is the intriguing fact that wayward alligators — escaped or abandoned pets, we assume — do occasionally turn up in the streets of New York City, never failing to cause a ruckus. For example:
June 2001 - A small alligator (actually a caiman, as it turned out) was spotted and eventually captured in Central Park.
November 2006 - A two-foot-long caiman is captured outside an apartment building in Brooklyn. Police say it "snapped and hissed" at them.
When Indiviglio was a child in the '60s, the street he lived on in the Bronx was broken up due to construction, he says. It was summer, he had lots of time, and the street repair gave him an easy entrance to the sewers.

Expert Note
When Indiviglio was a child in the '60s, the street he lived on in the Bronx was broken up due to construction, he says. It was summer, he had lots of time, and the street repair gave him an easy entrance to the sewers.
"I would bring leftovers from lunch, a long line and a hook, and spend a part of each day in the sewers looking for alligators," he remembers. "I saw rats, cockroaches — probably caught a lot of sicknesses — but I never saw anything like an alligator."

Today Indiviglio, 40, is a herpetologist who is responsible for the reptiles — among them alligators — at the Staten Island Zoo. He can walk into the cage of the four full-grown American alligators living in the zoo when he wants.

He says people believed that the sewers would be a good place for alligators to live — because it should be hot and steamy down there. Furthermore, there should be plenty of rats for the alligators to eat. But Indiviglio says the sewers are not for alligators — they are too polluted, too cold and there is not enough sunlight.
The temperature of an Alligators blood follows the temperature of the environment. "They can take the cold for a while — but not a four month New York winter," Indiviglio says.

He explains that alligators cannot digest their food when it is cold. If they eat anyway, the food will rot — and kill them.

Furthermore, it was believed to be baby alligators that were flushed into the sewers. But without the sun — and the D vitamin their skin produces when in the sun — they could not utilize calcium and their bones would get soft.

He says the pollution level in the sewers would kill anything that lives in the water.

Sources and Additional Information:

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