Friday, October 19, 2012

Alligators in the Sewers

Author: Cameron Hasty

"Albino Alligator" climbing from manhole.

We all know New York City to be a fun and mysterious place, full of strange and exciting things. The landscape is marked by some of the tallest buildings in the United States, including the Empire State Building. The traffic on the streets of New York is a trademark of the “Big City”. As interesting and monumental as these things are, something even more interesting may be lurking below the streets of busy New York City.

 In the late 1920s, families from New York would normally take summer vacations to Florida, often getting pet alligators to bring home. However, once these alligators got too big for comfort, they would be flushed down the toilet. This is where the myth comes into play. According to several sources, once these alligators were flushed down the toilets, they would then go down into the sewer system. Once in the sewer system, the alligators would grow and breed. These alligators are said to be albino because of lack of sunlight, causing their hide to fade to white and their eyes to turn red. Is there any truth to this myth?

A.G. Sulzberger of The New York Times wrote an article about the book written in 1959 that sparked much interest in this urban legend, “The World Beneath the City” by Robert Daley. In this book, Daley interviews the former superintendent of city sewers, Teddy May. For a long time, Mr. May rejected the idea of there being any alligators in his sewer systems, and denied the reports of such. An article from February 10, 1935, reported the finding of an alligator in an uptown sewer. This report turned out to be true; however, the likelihood of the alligator actually living down in the sewer system is widely doubted. Teddy May grew tired of the banter about the alligators in the sewers, so he decided to go down there himself to put this myth to rest once and for all. However, we was shocked at what he found when he entered the underground pipes. This is an excerpt from Daley’s book of what Mr. May had to say:
            Alligators serenely paddling around in his sewers. The beam of his own flashlight had spotlighted alligators whose length, on the average, was about two feet. Some may have been longer. Avoiding the swift current of the trunk lines under major avenues, the beasts had wormed up the smaller pipes under less important neighborhoods, and there Teddy had found them. The colony appeared to have settled contentedly under the very streets of the busiest city in the world. (Daley)
Teddy May was then convinced that the legend was true. However, it is known that Mr. May has a tendency to “stretch the truth” when it comes to his stories, at times. So, did he really see little alligators swimming around? We will never know. There are those who are very skeptical of the idea.

Manny Fernandez of The New York Times interviewed a long-time employee of the New York City sewer systems, Luis Baerga. Baerga describes the layout of the sewer systems, as well as his hypothesis for the beginning of the urban legend. He believes the stories originated from a photograph of an alligator being removed from the sewer that hung in the old Bureau of Sewers. Many who saw this photo assumed the city to be New York City. However, Baerga suggests the picture was actually taken in Florida. According to this article, there is not much truth to the myth of alligators being in the New York sewers. There is still no real answer to the question: “Do alligators live in the sewers of New York City?” There has, however, been a number of sightings of alligators in sewer lines.
Numerous videos on YouTube display fully grown alligators in sewer lines. Granted, these gators are not necessarily in the New York City sewers, there is proof that they can live down there. In the particular video I watched, a robotic camera goes down below the city streets of Leeds, England. This robot was launched in order to carry out a routine inspection of the sewer lines. The robot travelled down the main line and right away, a large alligator was laying in the moving waters. As the robot travelled further down the main line, there was a circular opening to the left with a growling noise emerging from the pipe. The robot stopped, turned to the left, and captured the sight of an angry alligator lying in the pipeline of the sewer, jaws opened. Although the color of these creatures could not be fully determined through this video, I can tell the color is not quite as dark as normal alligators. This could confirm the theory of the loss of deep color of these underground beasts. However, there is a lack of evidence showing the cause of the alligators being there due to being flushed down the toilet.
In another YouTube video I watched, NY Post reports a caiman alligator being found on the sidewalk after crawling out of the sewer. A caiman alligator is a small species of alligator. The caiman in this video was only about a foot and a half long. This is eerily similar to the alligators Teddy May described seeing on his trip down there. In this video, the officer holding the animal said it was most likely a pet somebody had dumped near the sewer. He went on to say that if this caiman had been left in the city, it would not have survived due to lack of nutrients needed for survival. If this is true, there would not be much hope for a small alligator to survive for a long period of time in the deep, dark sewers of New York City.
I believe there are and were alligators in the sewer system of New York City. There is strong evidence to prove that alligators can survive in the sewers, but not enough evidence to suggest they can remain down there for long periods of time. Because no evidence has been provided to suggest the real reason for the alligators being in the sewers, I cannot assume they were flushed down the toilet. So, in the words of Mythbusters, this myth is busted.

Works Cited:
Daley, Robert. The World Beneath the City. New York, 1959. Print.

Fernandez, Manny. “Miles of Sewer Lines, and He Knows Them Well.” The New York Times. 16 Feb. 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.

Kleen, Michael. “aprilfool.” Photograph. Legends and Lore of Illinois. 26 Aug. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.

New York Post. “Sewer Gator-Aid- New York Post.” Youtube. Web. 23 Aug. 2010. 15 Oct. 2012.

Sulzberger, A.G. “The Book Behind the Sewer-Alligator Legend.” The New York Times. 23 Nov. 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.

Yorkshirewatertube. “Crocodile Submerged in bowels of Leeds city sewer.” Youtube. Web. 31 Mar. 2009. 14 Oct. 2012.

Links for further research:

The Sewergator Sanctuary about the history of “sewergators.”

Alligators in the Sewers- An Urban Legend story behind the beginning of the “Alligators in the Sewers” myth. Alligators in New York Sewers down the myth about alligators in the sewers.

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