Sunday, 10 Dec 2023

The Prospect Park Gator Was Not the First. Here Are Other Urban Gators.

A brief history of New York City alligators.

Clockwise from top left: Wally, Toby, Tick Tock and Bobby.Credit…Animal Care Centers of NYC

By Hurubie Meko

An emaciated alligator found in Prospect Park last week was the latest in a long line of saw-toothed reptiles found all over New York City, raising several obvious questions: What? How? And why does this keep happening?

The animals appear in the city often enough to bolster a century-old rumor about alligators roaming in the sewer system, likely first inspired by the 1935 discovery of one, roughly eight feet long, in an East Harlem storm drain. Films such as “Alligator” over the years have added even more intrigue. Sometimes a year or two goes by between urban alligator discoveries, but five were captured in Brooklyn and Staten Island between 2018 and 2019 alone.

The past three years have been a dry spell. The Animal Care Centers of New York City, which is often called in when an alligator is spotted, had not received a single report about alligators since 2019, said Katy Hansen, the organization’s communications director.

But the city was once again captivated on Sunday, when a female alligator, later named Godzilla, was pulled from Prospect Park Lake, in Brooklyn, by a maintenance worker with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

The American alligator, who was about five feet long and was taken to the Bronx Zoo for treatment, had ingested a four-inch wide bathtub stopper and was “lethargic and suffering from exposure to cold temperatures,” according to a zoo statement on Wednesday. An alligator of her size should weigh between 30 to 35 pounds; she weighed 15, the statement said.

She was the sixth alligator that Animal Care Centers, a group that finds homes for abandoned and homeless animals, has helped to rescue in the city since 2018, according to Ms. Hansen.

The Rights of Animals

The Alligators of New York

The most recent cluster of alligator discoveries, according to Animal Care Centers, began in 2018 with Bobby, who was discovered in January on Staten Island by the police department’s gang unit.

Toby was found abandoned in Brooklyn that April.

Then in 2019, three alligators were recovered: Poland, a 5-year-old American alligator, was brought to Animal Care Centers in July after being found abandoned in a Staten Island park. Tick Tock was recovered in Brooklyn in September by the Police Department after it executed a search warrant. Wally was discovered by a parks department worker on Staten Island in October.

Aside from the boroughs in which the recent crop of alligators were found and the names Animal Care Centers gives them, information about them — how they got here and where they are now — is difficult to find, Ms. Hansen said.

The Police Department — which houses the Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad and the Emergency Service Unit — does not keep specific data on alligators they encounter, an official said. A parks department spokeswoman said their recent records show they have recovered alligators from a Queens park in 2015 and on Staten Island in 2019.

But local newspapers have published stories about the encounters at least as far back as August 1815, when John T. Brouwere found an alligator while hunting near Newtown Creek, said Michael Miscione, the former official borough historian for Manhattan.

“He had a rifle on him and basically shoved the thing in the alligator’s mouth and pulled the trigger,” Mr. Miscione said. According to the Long-Island Star, which recorded the incident, the alligator was later displayed in a collection in Manhattan.

Over the years, alligators have also been spotted sunbathing in a park in Queens, behind an apartment building and in a backyard in Brooklyn. One three-foot alligator even tried his luck crossing the street during evening rush hour in Manhattan in 2015.

In one famous incident two decades ago, city officials spent days tracking the movements of what was believed to be an alligator spotted in Central Park’s Harlem Meer, in the northeast corner of the park.

Nearly two dozen people reported seeing it: It was sunning itself, they said, and peering out of the water. An expert alligator wrangler was sent by a publicity firm from Florida to capture it.

When the nearly two-foot reptile was caught days later, it was discovered to be a spectacled caiman, a species of crocodile native to Central and South America.

How Alligators Get to the City

Alligators are not native to New York. They prefer southern climates, and usually are not found farther north than South Carolina. To make it so far north, they likely either come by mail or prospective owners must travel to pick them up.

“You can’t buy them in New York City,” Ms. Hansen said. The pandemic may have led to a decrease in the animals because travel was more restricted, she added.

Mr. Miscione said there’s also a long history of advertisements in magazines for mail-ordered alligators, at least as far back as the 1930s.

“You could get a mail-order alligator for $1.50,” he said. “And these weren’t hoaxes. You wouldn’t get a rubber alligator, you’d get a live alligator.”

A United Parcel Service driver was driving his route in August 2001 when a leaky box alarmed him. The box was shipped from Atlanta and headed to a home in Brooklyn.

When workers at a parcel service center in the borough opened the box, they found a five-foot alligator thrashing around, its snout and legs tied with duct tape.

“We would have never accepted a package with a live animal in it,” Norman Black, a spokesman for U.P.S., said at the time. “And certainly not an alligator.”

What Happens to Abandoned Alligators

Alligators who come in the mail may seem cute when they arrive, but they can rapidly outgrow their dwellings. And while mailing them may be legal, at least when they are babies, owning them as pets in New York City is not, according to the city.

When alligators are discovered, either abandoned or confiscated by police, they are sent to zoos and or animal rescue organizations that care for reptiles, Ms. Hansen said.

But she said she did not have specific information about where the rescued creatures live out the rest of their lives. A spokesman for the Bronx Zoo referred questions on Thursday about alligator cases to the police.

For those with illegal pets, New York City’s 311 page says owners can drop them off at Animal Care Centers shelters located in each of the boroughs, adding that those who do will not receive a violation.

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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