The sewer alligator is a creature from New York City urban legends. Sewer alligator folklore centers around claims about a population of alligators living in the city sewers.
Accounts often add fanciful details such as alligators growing to monstrous proportions due to feeding on rodents or supposedly nutritious sewage garbage.
Some accounts claim that blind albino alligators live in the sewers. There are also stories about giant gators terrorizing workers who went down to do maintenance work.
The fact that Manhattan observes Alligators in the Sewers Day (on February 9) testifies to the importance of the sewer alligator urban legend in New York City pop culture (Gothamist, 2015).
New Yorkers keep alligators as pets
According to some folklorists, New York City’s sewer alligator legend received inspiration from reports about city officials recovering alligators from people who illegally kept them as pets in their homes.
Keeping wild or exotic animals is illegal in New York City. However, city authorities have recovered hundreds of alligators from people who illegally kept them in their homes.
Residents may disregard regulations by obtaining baby alligators from multiple sources and raising them as pets. But when the reptile grows to full size, the pet owner may face challenges due to lack of space or the high cost of feeding and maintaining them.
[Note: A fully grown alligator that may reach 13 feet in length and weigh more than 800 lbs.]
While a pet owner may be able to keep neighbors from noticing a baby or juvenile alligator in their home, a full-grown one would be impossible to conceal. Thus neighbors may alert the city authorities.
People flush pet alligators down their toilets
According to reports, pet owners anticipating future inconveniences may secretly dispose of their baby alligator by trying to flush them down their toilets, dumping them off at various locations, such as the nearest body of water or at storm drains where the reptile may potentially gain access to the city sewers.
There are also cases where the pet escaped from captivity and ended up in the city sewer.
But despite urban legends about alligators surviving in sewers and growing to supersize, it is unlikely that a reptile would survive conditions inside a New York sewer for long (Barbara Mikkelson, Snopes, July 1999).
According to Snopes, city official James Flaherty explained in response to inquiries that the sewer system was not a suitable habitat for alligators for several reasons. Alligators are tropical creatures. They would struggle to survive in the sewers of New York City during the region’s harsh winters.
In an interview with the New York Times, Flaherty said he had never heard of alligators living in the city’s sewer system in more than three decades of working as a city official, neither was he aware of any city worker who had seen one (Jan Harold Brunvand, 2001).
Blind albino sewer alligators
Sewer alligator urban legends often describe the alleged creatures as blind albinos.
According to the accounts, when people flush their pet alligators down the toilets into the sewer system, they may grow into blind albinos because they lived underground and never received sunlight exposure.
According to popular reasoning, lack of sunlight exposure may result in alligators becoming albino-like creatures because their skins never developed melanin pigment through stimulating exposure to sunlight.
Lack of exposure to light could also make them blind because they never used their eyes for sight.
Mutant sewer alligators
According to some versions of the sewer gator urban legend, alligators living in sewers near industrial facilities generating toxic nuclear or chemical wastes may develop mutations that turn them into monsters with teratogenic features.
The mutation-induced changes may include a drastic increase in body size or an increase in the size and strength of jaws and teeth.
The horror movie Alligator (1980), written by John Sayles and Lewis Teague, exploited the mutant alligator motif. It featured a ferocious man-eating alligator that a family flushed down their toilet when it was a baby.
Sightings and Tales
Although stories about gigantic alligators living and thriving inside city sewers are urban legends, there have been incidents in the past in which city authorities recovered alligators from sewer pipes and storm drains.
Some incidents occurred in cities besides New York.
New York City
On February 9, 1935, the New York Times published a story: Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer.
According to the report, 16-year-old Salvatore Condulucci and a group of teenagers in East Harlem hauled an 8-foot alligator from a storm drain and killed it after it snapped at them.
New York City’s Alligators in the Sewers Day on February 9 reportedly memorializes the incident (Gothamist, 2015).
Multiple reports of alligators stuck in drains and sewer pipes have come from Florida. Sometimes alligators deliberately take shelter in drain pipes during stormy weather. They also enter sewer pipes in pursuit of rats and other rodents.
Alligators may wander into sewer pipes that drain into swamps where they live.
Media outlets reported that in 2005, an animal trapper pulled out a 7-foot alligator from inside a sewer pipe at Wilmette Avenue in Ormond Beach, Volusia county.
The trapper claimed that local alligators often used the sewer system to “travel in and around the city.”
According to the October 13, 1917 issue of The Evening Index (Greenwood, South Carolina), Pittsburg Bureau of Highways and Sewers workers encountered a 3-foot alligator while doing maintenance work in a sewer pipe on Royal Street, on the city’s north side.
According to the report, George Moul, an employee of the bureau, went to fix a sewer in Royal Street. He was prodding to unclog a channel when a strange-looking saurian face with evil eyes lunged at him.
Unfazed, Moul went down, grabbed the creature’s head, and pulled it out. He then tied a rope around the creature’s neck and dragged it to his house on Lockhart street.
In March 1984, media outlets reported that city workers rescued a Nile crocodile stuck in a sewer pipe under the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris.
The reports did not explain how it got to the sewers, but it might have escaped from a zoo.
The authorities moved the female Nile crocodile, christened Eleonore, to the Vannes Aquarium, where it died in 2022.
Sewer gator urban legends
Urban legends about sewer alligators date back to the early 20th century.
Some prominent city officials, such as New York’s former superintendent of sewers, Teddy May, promoted the urban legends in the 1930s by sharing tongue-in-cheek stories about the creatures infesting the sewers.
Teddy May claimed there were oversized alligators, including albino ones, in the sewers.
Other narrators built upon May’s stories, and soon, there were several versions of colorful stories about sewer workers battling malevolent reptiles underground.
Robert Daley: Alligators in the sewers
Many 20th-century authors (including Robert Daley in The World Beneath the City (1959) and Thomas Pynchon in his 1963 novel V) wrote stories about alligators in the sewers.
For instance, Robert Daley dedicated an entire chapter of his book to the legend.
In the chapter Alligator in the Sewers, the writer cited Teddy May, a city official whose colleagues considered “a spinner of colorful yarns.” (Barbara Mikkelson, Snopes, 1999).
May claimed that in 1935, New York City sewer workers encountered blind albino alligators swimming in sewage water.
He said he did not believe subordinates who first told him about alligators living underground. He thought some of them might have been drinking before going underground. But following multiple reports, he went down to investigate, and to his shock, his flashlight revealed reptilian monsters lurking in dark corners.
Teddy May: Workers hunted sewer alligators with .22 rifles
May claimed he organized an extermination effort to rid New York sewers of alligator infestation. The men hunted the elusive giant reptiles using several methods, including baiting and poisoning.
They also resorted to flushing the beasts out of their hiding places by flooding the underwater channels and positioning men armed with .22 rifles at strategic positions around the city.
According to May’s tongue-in-cheek accout, they finally rid the sewers of the alleged reptiles in 1937.
In his novel V, published in 1963, the Faulkner Foundation Award-winning novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote a fictional story about Benny Profane hunting alligators in the sewers. According to the story, the alligators ended up in the sewers after pet owners flushed them down their toilets.
Stories about sewer alligators had become so popular and widely believed by the mid-20th century that city authorities have had to issue multiple official statements assuring people that were no alligators living in New York City’s underground.
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Where to find
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/26/nyregion/alligators-sewers-new-york.html, “The Truth About Alligators in the Sewers of New York,” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://web.archive.org/web/20110927141857/http://www.wftv.com/news/5072585/detail.html, “Alligator Pulled From Ormond Beach Sewer Pipe,” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://gothamist.com/arts-entertainment/80-years-ago-an-alligator-was-spotted-in-a-manhattan-sewer, “80 Years Ago, An Alligator Was Spotted In A Manhattan Sewer,” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA448568210&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=10639330&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=anon%7E1f6b5c74, “Alligators in the Sewers!” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/alligators-sewers/, “Can Alligators Live in Sewers?” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://www.newspapers.com/clip/13626176/an-alligator-in-the-sewer/, “Alligator found in sewer,” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna43274490, “Do alligators really live in New York sewers?” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://theearfultower.com/2018/09/09/meet-eleonore-the-crocodile-found-in-the-paris-sewers-in-1984/, “Meet Eleonore, the crocodile found in the Paris sewers in 1984,” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://www.livescience.com/33322-alligators-crocodiles-new-york-city-sewers.html, “Do Alligators Really Live in New York City Sewers?” accessed on March 27, 2023.
https://gothamist.com/arts-entertainment/the-alligator-in-the-sewer-evidence-behind-nycs-urban-legend, “The Alligator In The Sewer: Evidence Behind NYC’s Urban Legend,” accessed on March 27, 2023.
Featured: There are alligators in the sewers, according to a New York urban legend. Pic credit: Pixabay