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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac/Gator Tales

Air Date: Week of

This week, we have facts about alligators in the New York City sewers. Urban legends be damned, a full-grown gator was pulled from an East 123rd Street storm drain 68 years ago.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: U2 “New York” All That You Can’t Leave Behind” Universal (2000)]

CURWOOD: Sixty-eight years ago this week, some New York teenagers launched an urban legend. While shoveling snow into an open manhole, the teens saw an eight-foot alligator struggling in the slushy water below East 123rd Street. They fashioned a lasso, and hauled the gator above ground. But it wasn’t a rescue with a happy ending. Eight feet of alligator is too much alligator for most people to handle. And the youths promptly killed it with their shovels. But the story did not die.

And while this incident is the only publicly documented sighting of an alligator in the New York sewer system, it has spawned many tales. Probably the most popular is the myth--you know you’ve heard it--baby gators brought back to the city from Florida as pets wind up getting flushed down the toilet when they start to show their teeth and their tempers. The yarn hit its stride in the 1930’s when none other than New York’s sewer superintendent Teddy May claimed he had seen and exterminated dozens of gators in the sewers.

Sewers may be the most swamp-like part of the city, but they are hardly good alligator habitat. It’s simply too cold and toxic down there. Still, the legend of the Gotham gators lives on, and not entirely without reason. Last summer, a smaller cousin of the alligator, called a caiman, mysteriously appeared in a Central Park pond. It was captured and placed in the park zoo.

So, the odds may be against them. But, after all, these crocodilians did survive the global disaster that killed the dinosaurs. Maybe they can survive New York, too. And, for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.




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