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Sewer alligator stories date back to the late 1920s and early 1930s; in most instances they are part of contemporary legend. They are based upon reports of alligator sightings in rather unorthodox locations, in particular New York City.
The New York Times reports the city rescues 100 alligators per year, some directly from homes where they are kept as illegal pets (which can be legally ordered online in other states and are legal to mail when small), and some from outside (where they can attract considerable attention) though mostly above-ground.
Though escapees and former pets may survive for a short time in New York sewers, longer-term survival is not possible due to low temperatures and the bacteria in human feces. Sewer maintenance crews insist there is no underground population.
Following the reports of sewer alligators in the 1930s, the story has built up over the decades and become more of a contemporary legend. Many have even questioned how accurate the original stories are, and some have even suggested they are fictions created by Teddy May, who was the Commissioner of Sewers at the time. Interviews with him were the basis of the first published accounts of sewer alligators. However, the story of the "sewer gator" in New York City is well known and various versions have been told. In their honor, February 9 is Alligators in the Sewers Day in Manhattan.
Louisiana or Florida to New York City
As late as the middle of the 20th century, souvenir shops in Florida sold live baby alligators (in small fish tanks) as novelty souvenirs. Tourists from New York City would buy a baby alligator and try to raise it as a pet. When the alligator grew too large for comfort, the family would proceed to flush the reptile down the toilet.
What happens next varies. The most common story is that the alligators survive and reside within the sewer and reproduce, feeding on rats and garbage, growing to huge sizes and striking fear into sewer workers. In Robert Daley's book The World Beneath the City (1959) he comments that one night a sewer worker in New York City was shocked to find a large albino alligator swimming toward him. Weeks of hunting followed.
The Journal of American Folklore has this to say on the subject:
In 1959 a book entitled The World Beneath the City was published by Lippincott. Written by Robert Daley, it is a history of the problems involved in the development of the network of utilities beneath Manhattan Island. And in the midst of the stories of engineering problems and political deals is a chapter entitled "Alligators in the Sewers" (see pp. 187–189). It is based on the author's interviews with Teddy May, who had been Commissioner of Sewers in New York for some thirty years.
According to May, sewer inspectors first reported seeing alligators in 1935, but neither May nor anyone else believed them. "Instead, he set men to watch the sewer walkers to find out how they were obtaining whisky down in the pipes." Persistent reports, however, perhaps including the newspaper item discovered by Coleman, caused May to go down to find out for himself. He found that the reports were true. "The beam of his own flashlight had spotlighted alligators whose length, on the average, was about two feet."
May started an extermination campaign, using poisoned bait followed by flooding of the side tunnels to flush the beasts out into the major arteries where hunters with .22 rifles were waiting. He announced in 1937 that the 'gators were gone. Reported sightings in 1948 and 1966 were not confirmed.
However, there is no mention of "blind albino" alligators, and May suggests that the baby alligators were dumped down storm drains rather than "flushed down the toilet".
An additional reference to the sewer alligator exists in Thomas Pynchon's first novel, V. It fictionalizes the account, stating Macy's was selling them for a time for 50 cents. Eventually the children became bored with the pets, setting them loose in the streets as well as flushing them into the sewers. Rather than poison, shotguns were used as the remedy. Benny Profane, one of the main characters in the book, continues to hunt them as a full-time job until the population is reduced.
A 1973 children's book, The Great Escape: Or, The Sewer Story by Peter Lippman anthropomorphizes these alligators and has them dress up in disguise as humans and charter an airplane to fly them home to the Florida swamps.
Versions including albinos and mutants
Some versions go further to suggest that, after the alligator was disposed of at such a young age, it would live the majority of its life in an environment not exposed to sunlight, and thus it would apparently in time lose its eyesight and the pigment in its hide and that the reptile would grow to be blind and completely albino (pure white in color with red or pink eyes). Another reason why an albino alligator would retreat to an underground sewer is its vulnerability to the sun in the wild; as there is no dark pigment in the creature's skin, it has no protection from the sun, which makes it very hard for it to survive in the wild.
Some people even spoke of mutant alligators living in the sewers which have been exposed to many different types of toxic chemical waste which altered them, making them deformed and sometimes even larger and with strange colouring. A gigantic mutant alligator based on these myths appears in the 1980 film of the same name.
One 1927 account describes an experience of a Pittsburgh Bureau of Highways and Sewers employee who was assigned the task of clearing out a section of sewer pipe on Royal Street in the Northside Section of the city. The account reads, "[He] removed the manhole cover and began to clear an obstruction when he realized that a set of 'evil looking eyes' was staring at him." He then removed a three-foot alligator and took it home with him. There are other numerous recent media accounts of alligators occupying storm drains and sewer pipes, all from states in the southern US.
In Paris, France, a Nile crocodile was captured by firefighters in the sewers below the Pont Neuf bridge on March 7, 1984. The crocodile, named Elenore, currently lives at the Aquarium in Vannes.
A 2-foot (0.61 m) baby alligator was caught in 2010 by the NYPD in the sewers in Queens. However, it is unlikely that a fully grown adult would survive for long in New York, due to the cold winter temperatures.
Alligators have been sighted in the drains and sewers of Florida as recently as 2017, due to many of these waste outlets' backing out onto the swamps. During storm surges and in the colder winter months, alligators sometimes shelter in convenient drains and hunt for rats to supplement their diet.
- Corey Kilgannon (February 26, 2020). "The Truth About Alligators in the Sewers of New York". The New York Times.
- David Mikkelson (July 10, 1999). "Can Alligators Live in Sewers?".
- Live Science
- "2014 Alligators in the Sewers Day". NYC H2O. Retrieved August 16, 2021.
- Emery, David. "Alligators in the Sewers of New York: Is it true that giant albino alligators inhabit the sewers of New York City?" ThoughtCo.com (May 5, 2017).
- Fergus, George (1989). "More on Alligators in the Sewers". The Journal of American Folklore. 55 (#988): 8. doi:10.2307/541011. JSTOR 541011.
- Pynchon, Thomas. Chapter Five: "In Which Stencil Nearly Goes West with an Alligator," V (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1963), p. 43.
- Suggestions that the alligators may have been albino
- Alligator film
- White, Thomas (2009). Forgotten tales of Pennsylvania. Charleston: History Press. pp. 13–14. ISBN 9781596298125.
- "Tampabay: Man falls in with alligator". Sptimes.com. June 16, 2000. Retrieved January 10, 2014.
- Josh Harkinson (May 25, 2006). "Gator Aid – Page 1 – News – Houston". Houston Press. Archived from the original on October 30, 2006. Retrieved January 10, 2014.
- Richard Connelly (January 27, 2005). "Love It, Fear It – Page 1 – News – Houston". Houston Press. Archived from the original on January 21, 2010. Retrieved January 10, 2014.
- "Alligator Pulled From Ormond Beach Sewer Pipe". www.wftv.com. October 7, 2005. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved January 10, 2014.
- French news report
- Video of Eleanor
- Alligators in NY sewers
- Eleanor the crocodile
- Time Magazine
- Live Science
- 9 ft alligator pulled from sewer
- Tales From the Urban Crypt: Legendary whoppers about Gotham run the ghastly and ghostly gamut Urbanlegends.com. Retrieved April 26, 2010
- IMDB page for 'Alligator'
- News. Alligator found in sewer in Florida. Oct. 2005
- Man Falls in with Alligator – St. Petersburg Times, June 16, 2000
- Gator Aid – Houston Press, May 25, 2006
- Alligator Stomp – Houston Press, January 27, 2005
- See Ya Later, Alligator – Bluffton Today, May 8, 2006
- No. 3: Reggie – DailyBreeze.com, December 28, 2005