Alligators in the sewers
|Gather 'round the campfire|
In the popular view, alligators in sewers are a significant problem in large cities with older, larger sewer systems, particularly where storm water enters the system. This supposedly provides a source of water that has similar qualities to the Florida everglades, a prime alligator habitat. The alligators first enter the sewer system as babies; tiny pet alligators are flushed down the toilet when they become large enough to damage children's hands, and the parents suddenly realize that a 20 foot gator is not a suitable pet. They then feed on flushed goldfish and other small pets, as well as the ever present sewer rats.
While not a danger to the average household (they can't get through the S-bend when large), they do present a danger to sewer workers, gas and electric workers, and the occasional phone company technician where pipes and cables run through the sewer tunnels. If the protective grates are disturbed the alligators may escape into surrounding lakes and rivers.
While most of the legends are confined to the early 20th century, many contemporary stories are also known. One account from Tampa Bay, Florida features a man falling into a drain to find an alligator gnashing at his arm and another account tells of a trapper who was called to remove a gator trapped in a sewer pipe. However, both these more contemporary accounts occurred in areas where alligators are found in the wild naturally, indicating that they may have been only temporarily wandering into the sewer areas, rather than living in them as the original urban legend suggests.
Back in the real world:
- The sewer environment is all wrong for alligators — the presence of high levels of E. coli and other bacteria would be extremely detrimental to the gator.
- They would never survive a New York winter. Alligators prefer a temperature in the 70-80° Fahrenheit (21-26°C) range.
But just when you thought it would never happen…
The New York Herald Tribune had printed an article about an alligator hunt in the Bronx in 1932.
An article from The New York Times on February 10, 1935 declared, "Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer" This story seems to have also appeared on that same day in The New York Herald Tribune, but the writers don’t agree on the boys’ names’ spelling or how they got their lasso.
- Snopes has its usual good debunking.
- Man falls in with alligator (16 June 2000) by Mike Brassfield St. Petersberg Times (archived from July 11, 2000).
- Alligator Pulled From Ormond Beach Sewer Pipe (7 October 2005) WTFTV.com (archived from October 29, 2005).
- E. coli and Enterococci Levels in Urban Stormwater, River Water and Chlorinated Treatment Plant Effluent" by John J. Gannon & Michael K. Busse (1989) Water Research 23(9):1167-1176.
- Alligator physiology and life history: the importance of temperature by Valentine A. Lance (2003) Experimental Gerontology 38(7):801-805. doi:10.1016/S0531-5565(03)00112-8.
- Meet Eleonore the Crocodile Found in the Paris Sewers in 1984 by Oliver Gee (September 9, 2018) The Earful Tower.
- Eleanor the Crocodile in the Sewers of Paris Joins the Ferme Aux Crocodiles (January 11, 2021) World Today News.
- Alligator Hunt in Bronx Thrills Police (June 30, 1932) The New York Herald Tribune.
- Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer; Youths Shoveling Snow into Manhole See the Animal Churning in Icy Water. Snare It and Drag It Out Reptile Slain by Rescuers When It Gets Vicious — Whence It Came Is Mystery. (February 10, 1935) The New York Times.
- Eight Foot Alligator Hauled by Boys Out of Sewer: Volunteer Snow Cleaners Spy Swishing Tail, Rope Owner and Hoist Away. But Shovel Kills Him in Best St. George Manner (February 10, 1935) The New York Herald Tribune.
- USP Welcomes Alexander Klingspor's "N.Y.C Legend" to Union Square (October 18, 2023).
- A new sculpture celebrates the enduring myth of the NYC sewer alligator by Jonathan Edwards (October 24, 2023 at 12:21 a.m. EDT) The Washington Post.