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Urban Adventures – Fishing for Alligators in the Sewers of New York City

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  I’ve been fortunate in having had many adventures with reptiles.  Some took place in the exotic locales I dreamed of visiting as a child, but one of my first was situated in far less promising surroundings – the sewers below the Bronx, in NYC!

The Legend

I grew up hearing tales of huge alligators that supposedly cruised the sewers of NYC, warmed by the steamy air and gorging on rats, roaches and garbage.  In the Frank and Marsh Crocodile1950’s and 60’s, huge numbers of baby Spectacled Caimans (Caiman crocodylus), dubbed “alligators”, were sold to tourists visiting Florida.  In fact, I was presented with just such a creature by my grandfather.  As the story went, the “gators” wound up in sewers after being flushed or dropped there when they became ill or too large for their owners to manage. 

My Golden Opportunity

When I was 10 or 11 years old, construction on the street outside my home gave me a long-awaited opportunity…the chance to sneak down into the sewers on an alligator hunt.  I couldn’t imagine a more fortunate set of circumstances, and felt sorry for the many children deprived of such a grand adventure! 

Provisioned with a hook, line and pilfered cold cuts, I spent many summer afternoons stalking the mythical beasts below the streets of the Bronx.  I did see “wildlife” – rats, mice and roaches – but I did not catch any alligators (or infectious diseases, thankfully!).  

Fortunately, my interests were wide, and with the aid of my books and the (very!) patient, kind-hearted folks at the American Museum of Natural History’s Invertebrate Department, I was able to determine that at least 3 different species of cockroach roamed the area.

The Reality of NYC’s Sewer Gators

Of course, NYC’s sewer system is a less than ideal home for crocodilians of any type – cold winter temperatures, a lack of sunlight and a poor diet would doom the White Gatorcreatures to brief lives, if ever they were there. 

I recently expressed that opinion in an interview that was scheduled to air on the TV show “Monster Quest”.  However, I upon watching the episode I found that I had been “deleted” – hopefully because my comments were not “dramatic” enough, and not due to my poor on-air appearance!   

Some Real NYC Crocodilians

About 10 years ago, a young Spectacled Caiman did wind up being caught in a filter at a water treatment plant on the Bronx River…perhaps the first solid evidence of a free-living crocodilian in NYC.  The animal had likely been dumped by its owner a short time earlier, but we could not trace its history. 

A young alligator, released into a lake in Central Park a few years back, put Manhattan on the map as crocodilian “habitat”.

Working with Crocs

Frank Moving GharialHappily, as time went on I was able to work with 15 or so species of crocodilians in zoos and the wild.  Please see the attached photos – the beast charging me is a marsh crocodile,  Crocodylus palustris, the long-snouted fellow being led into the net is an Indian gharial, Gavialis gangeticus, and the white specimen is an albino American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis.

Further Reading

For more on sewer gators and additional photos, please check out the interview I gave to Columbia University’s online magazine.

 Please write in with your questions and comments. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

4 comments

  1. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    That’s what my Mom said at the time, when she found out! Please write in with any questions or comments you might have.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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