Could Alligators Survive in the Sewers of New York City?

The city sewer commissioner once staged a gator hunt.

Animals
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Could Alligators Survive in the Sewers of New York City?
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In today’s world many misconceptions have been perpetuated—becoming modern day “facts”—when, in reality, myths and hearsay have taken over. Sorry to burst your bubble, but in this weekly column, Ripley’s puts those delusions to the test, turning your world upside down, because you can’t always…Believe It!

Today: Do alligators live in New York City sewers?.

Sewer Gators

Since the 1930s, people have believed that alligators live in the sewers of New York City and other cities. This idea became popular in the 1950s and has continued for many years.

This urban legend was said to come from Teddy May, who was the Commissioner of the Sewers at that time. May was reported as saying several inspectors spotted alligators in the cities’ underground tunnels circa 1935. 

Without any real proof of their existence, May set about to rid the city of the phantom gators.  Using poison bait and luring them into the cities’ main tunnels, hunters stood on guard, rifles in hand, waiting for the massive reptiles.

teddy may in the new york sewers

Then-New York Sewer Commissioner Teddy May

No sightings of alligators in the sewers were filed during the campaign. However, in 1937, May declared the cities’ sewers were safe for rodents and waste products once again.

In the 1950s, stories of alligators in NYC sewers caught the imaginations of Americans all over again. This time, the story had changed a bit. Stories would focus on families vacationing in Florida, bringing live baby alligators with them back to New York. Once those little critters grew too large, the family would flush the gator down the toilet and into the sewer system.

As legend has it, the alligators would feast on rats and trash, growing to enormous sizes. The alligators would turn albino along the way—because of the lack of sunlight—and menace the population at large.

No concrete proof of alligator—albino or otherwise—has ever surfaced…in the sewage anyway.

Recent Sightings of Alligators in New York City

Incredible tales of alligators in New York City have persisted for over a century, fueled by sporadic sightings and popular films like “Alligator.”  

The most recent discovery was an emaciated female alligator named Godzilla , found in Prospect Park. Weighing only half of what she should, Godzilla was rescued by the Animal Care Centers of New York City and is now receiving treatment at the Bronx Zoo. 

These urban alligators, not native to the region, likely arrive via mail or are purchased by enthusiasts who then struggle to care for them. When discovered, they are sent to zoos or rescue organizations, where they can live out their lives in a suitable environment.

The Truth About NYC Sewer Alligators

Why? Why would it be unlikely for a gator to survive, let alone grow to massive lengths in the NYC sewer system? Primarily because alligators are reptiles, which are cold-blooded animals. Meaning they can not regulate their body temperatures on their own as humans do—via sweating to cool off or shivering to warm up.

To survive, alligators need to warm their bodies by basking in the sun or under a heating lamp for several hours. Which living in the NYC sewer system doesn’t provide. Without the warmth of the sun, alligators end up in a state called “torpor,” where primary bodily functions all but cease. Gators can survive for months without sun, like in winter, but they will eventually die without exposure to the sun.

The Reality

Why?  Why would it be unlikely for a gator to survive, let alone grow to massive lengths in the NYC sewer system?  Primarily because alligators are reptiles, which are cold-blooded animals.  Meaning, they can not regulate their body temperatures on their own as humans do—via sweating to cool off or shivering to warm up.

In order to survive, alligators need to warm their bodies by basking in the sun or under a heating lamp for several hours.  Which, living in the NYC sewer system doesn’t provide.  Without the warmth of the sun, alligators end up in a state called “torpor,” where primary bodily functions all but cease.  And while, they can survive several months in this state—like throughout winter—without eventual exposure to the sun, gators would eventually die.

alligator on a log

Even in the unlikely event that an alligator did manage to survive for any length of time in the cold, darkness of a sewer, it wouldn’t turn albino.  Albinism is a mutation in the genetic code that occurs during the gestation process. 

Albino alligators are rare reptiles with a genetic condition that gives them white skin and pink eyes. They are often found in captivity due to their sensitivity to sunlight and the challenges they face in the wild.

At the end of the day, animals don’t lose skin pigment in the absence of light. They just get cranky and depressed.

An Urban Legacy

In a stunning revelation in October 2023, Swedish artist Alexander Klingspor unveiled “N.Y.C. Legend,” a 1,320-pound bronze sculpture celebrating the enduring myth of sewer alligators. 

The awe-inspiring artwork portrays a protective alligator curled around a manhole cover, guarding a collection of urban relics. Displayed in Union Square through June, the sculpture symbolizes the resilience shared between New Yorkers and alligators, both adapting to extreme environments. 

Klingspor is actively seeking a permanent home for his remarkable creation in the city, preserving the mystique of these hidden creatures in the collective imagination of New York.

By Jesse Gormley, contributor for Ripleys.com

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