The "gator" stalking Central Park turned out to be a caiman, but it gave the folks at the Deparment of Environmental Protection one more chance to have fun with the sewergator legend before it was captured. They didn't waste their opportunity:


Richard Pyle
Associated Press Newswires
19 June 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- If the alligator sighted in Central Park's Harlem Meer is caught, it should be placed in "its natural habitat, the New York City sewers," the city's Department of Environmental Protection says.

DEP Chief of Staff Charles G. Sturcken made that "demand" on Tuesday in a one-paragraph statement that sounded like a joke or a hoax -- although Sturcken insists he's serious.

"That alligator would never survive the winter in the Harlem Meer, which is stagnant water with no outlet," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday as the New York media was having plenty of fun with the recent `gator sighting. About two dozen people, including an off-duty cop and several city employees, reported spotting the reptile lurking in the lake.

Serious or not, Sturcken offered a rationale for the DEP's custody claim: "The sewer system is much warmer, and is the city's answer to a natural swamp, with 6,000 miles of tunnels and a billion gallons of water, replenished every day."

Sturcken said it's more than an urban myth that alligators live in the sewers, although none have been sighted in recent years. There was at least one in the late 1930s, and another in the 1960s, according to department "waste water records," he said.

Time was when baby alligators with "souvenir of Florida" painted on their backs were a popular item among tourists to the Sunshine State. The alligator is now a legally protected species in Florida.

"It was believed that people had them as pets and released them, flushing them down the toilets or releasing them in street catch basins," Sturcken said. "That's what seems to have happened in the Harlem Meer."

He noted that the DEP's own departmental logo is an alligator, a spinoff of the sewer mythology.

The 18-to-24-inch lizard was spotted along the shore of the Meer, a picturesque lake in Central Park's northeast corner, on Saturday. Yanked by its tail onto the bank, the reptile escaped its captors and returned to the water, triggering an intermittent search now in its third day.

As of late Tuesday the 'gator was still at large, said Anne Hagan, spokeswoman for the Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park for the city.

Hagan said she had not seen the DEP statement. At the city's Parks and Recreation department, spokesman Jarrod Agen said officials had seen it and were mystified as to its meaning.

All this occurred as the New York media was enjoying this most venerable of urban legends -- the Florida-alligator-in-the-sewers (though this one was actually in a lake).

The New York Post compared it to Scotland's "Loch Ness Monster" and started a contest among its readers to name the critter, with such helpful suggestions as "Snaggletooth."

It also quoted Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, never one to flee from publicity, as saying no one was in danger from the alligator "unless you smear yourself with honey and stick your toes in the Meer."

Stern agreed with Sturcken that the tropical terror could not survive Gotham's harsh winters, and needs to be found before the Meer freezes over.

But Parks officials said that if it is apprehended, they plan to send it back to Florida, conjuring up an unseemly tug of war with the DEP over the scaly fugitive.