America's Urban Alligators
One of the most recurrent pieces of newspaper lore about New York life is the story that the city's sewer system is inhabited by hordes of prowling alligators. The alligators, so the tales go, are the one-time pets of wealthy and eccentric New Yorkers who, having grown tired of them, flush them into the sewer system.
The chief of the city's underground drainage and aqueduct system is constantly pestered with enquiries about the awesome, subterranean prowlers. Time and again he has refuted the tales. There are no alligators in New York sewers. No authenticated case of an alligator encounter has ever been reported.
New York's alligators are fiction, not fact.
Then, in August 1982, the drainage department was confounded. An alligator was caught in the water system.
Measuring only 26 inches long, she was hardly the nightmare creature of press legend; but an alligator she was, 'large as life and twice as snappy', according to one report. She was snared in a reservoir which supplies the city's drinking water about 25 miles north of Manhattan. An expert told reporters:
'The way to catch the things is to wait until dark and then shine a light in their eyes.'
This handy tip for catching alligators has greater value in America's southern states, where the razor-toothed reptiles are a more menacing presence.
Alligators are native to the southern deltas, but until recent years they had practically been exterminated by hunters who obtained high prices for their skins. Then, in the late 1960s, alligators became a protected species - and began to make their comeback with a vengeance. A particularly nasty infestation occurred at Homosassa Springs, Florida, in 1966 and was the subject of much attention in the national press.
By the late 1970s, alligators were becoming a fairly common sight in Miami and other southern cities. They turned up in people's back yards and swimming pools. Once in a while, an alligator would snap up a poodle or other pet. In the summer of 1977, motorists in downtown Miami could hardly believe their eyes.
For there, sprawled on a sidewalk at a major road junction, were two quite colossal alligators, apparently waiting for the traffic lights to change.
Cars screeched to a halt amid a riot of horn-honking. The police were summoned as terrified pedestrians raced from the scene. But by the time the police arrived, the alligators had slunk off to the nearest sewer.
Today, alligators have attained the status of major pests, and the skills of the professional alligator catcher are as prized as those of the ratcatcher of the past.