Tuesday, 10 February 2015

EVERYDAY STRANGE - Alligators in Sewers, NYC

“Salvatore yelled: "Hey, you guys, wait a minute," and got down on his knees to see what was the trouble. What he saw, in the thickening dusk, almost caused him to topple into the icy cavern. For the jagged surface of the ice blockade below was moving; and something black was breaking through ... "Honest, it's an alligator!" he exploded.”

NEW YORK, NY - An article appeared in the February 10, 1935 edition of the New York Times titled ‘Alligator found in Uptown Sewer’. It tells a surreal story about a group of youths shoveling snow into the sewer when one of them (Salvatore Condolucci) sees something moving weakly at the bottom. After identifying the moving thing as an alligator the group ties a lasso around its neck and hauls it ten feet up to the street. The reptile snaps feebly at the gang and they proceed to beat it to death with their shovels. It’s written in that white hot prose style common at the New York Times which blurs the line between fiction and journalism.

New York City’s former superintendent of sewers Teddy May talked about undergoing subterranean expeditions to root out the alligator problem. The first-hand accounts of Mr. May’s sewer safaris discovering “serenely paddling” colonies of ‘gators, then systematically hunting and destroying them were recounted in Robert Daley’s 1959 book, The World Beneath the City. From humble origins a legend too good to be true was born.

The consensus view of scientists is that alligators could not survive in the sewers beneath New York due to a confluence of hostile conditions: cold weather, lack of sun, food scarcity and pollution. But science is not conducted by consensus and appealing to a majority is a logical fallacy. Could the original Times article be true?

The author repeatedly describes the alligator as half-dead when it is found and states that its origin is a mystery and the subject of some debate and consideration. After it was bludgeoned to death the gator was taken to the Lehigh Stove and Repair Shop across the street where it was measured and weighed, then picked up by city workers and incinerated on Staten Island.

In 2009 Times publisher's son A.G. Sulzberger III ran a condescending blog piece about the alligators-in-the-sewer phenomenon. In it, Salvatore Condolucci, then 92-years old doesn’t retract the 1935 story. The fact that Sulzberger was able even to produce Condolucci speaks to the veracity of the original story. That the still living eye witness confirmed it is also worth considering, even though Sulzberg was careful to describe Condolucci’s memory as fading.

The “scientific consensus” would have you believe that there is no truth to the rumor that thriving colonies of alligators live or ever have lived in the sewers of New York, but could at least one have gotten down there by one way or another? Absolutely. Before the 1935 article appeared there was another incident three years earlier. On June 28, 1932 it was reported that "swarms" of alligators were spotted in the Bronx River and one was found dead on its banks. The conditions of a big city sewer are probably not as adverse to alligators as the scientists would have you believe, no matter how popular their opinions are among their peers.

These scientists have spread the rumor that ‘gators could not survive under these conditions, without scientifically verifying the idea. They seem to forget that alligators survived whatever it was that killed off the dinosaurs. Alligators are dinosaurs. They’ve been through climate changes, ice ages, lack of sunlight, all those conditions and survived as a species for 180 million years.

Lack of sunlight isn’t a problem, not if you want your gator to grow faster. It’s not the healthy choice for the sun-loving animal but commercial alligator farmers keep their livestock in the dark because it speeds the growing process.

Alligators have been found in sewers on numerous occasions in the southern states, even the wikipedia article on the subject lists multiple sources with links to news articles. You can even watch a video below taken in Florida of an alligator in a sewer.

There are food sources down there, nobody denies there are thriving rat colonies in the sewers of New York, and where one species thrives so must predator and prey. Though the sewer collects cold rain water, temperatures would be warmer in the sewers than on the streets due to heat energy released by decaying matter. But is it enough to support a colony of alligators? I’m not ready to say it’s impossible.

New York state isn’t saying it’s impossible either. Legislators have not taken any chances with the legend or tempted fate: it is now illegal to keep an alligator or its near-relatives as pets within state limits.

1999 - Unexplained (2nd edition) by Jerome Clark, pp 389-90


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