On Sunday, Feb. 18, park workers fished a 4-foot-long alligator out of the Prospect Park lake. Because I live in Brooklyn, family and friends have been checking in, making sure I know that gators lurk in the water. My mom hammered home the point with a text about a deadly alligator attack this week in Florida.
I’m from the earthquakes-and-fires part of the world, so large teeth are not my preferred hazard. But Brooklyn is not this alligator’s preferred hazard, either.
The alligator, estimated to be 5 or 6 years old, was in poor condition when they fished her out, according to the parks department, partly because alligators are not cold-weather animals. American Alligators can survive freezes by hiding in iced-over lakes with their noses out. Still, they need to stay in conditions above about 40 degrees to survive.
I can relate. Despite our unusually warm and snow-free winter, I’m chilly. I feel a kinship with the alligator, and I’m not the only one.
“Man, I feel bad for it,” a man named Moses told the Guardian when they stopped him in the park for his take. “It shouldn’t be in a lake. Animals are like people, you know?”
This quote has become koan-like in my mind. The longer I ponder it, the more it feels surprisingly accurate and hauntingly beautiful. It speaks to the urban experience, to the ethics of existing, to what it means to be from a warm place and wind up in a cold one. But I digress. Here’s what we know about the Prospect Park Alligator so far.
How did she wind up in a lake in Prospect Park in February? Did she crawl out of the sewer? ARE THERE MORE OF THEM?
Wild animals wind up in surprising places for all sorts of reasons: See, for example, a 2-pound leopard shark that fell from the sky onto a golf course in 2012 (dropped by a bird) or Colombia’s invasive hippos (kept by cocaine dealer Pablo Escobar, and let loose after his death in 1993). In this case, our friend is likely a pet alligator who was abandoned. This was the sixth alligator rescued in the city since 2018, a spokesperson for Animal Care Centers New York told the New York Times.
Despite the myths, colonies of alligators do not live in the New York City sewers. Alligators have, however, been found in the NYC sewer (1935), in the East River (1937), on a Brooklyn subway platform (also 1937), in parks (2018, 2019), and in the city’s water supply (1982).
Are pet alligators legal in New York?
Absolutely not! Thou shalt not harbor wild animals as pets in New York State. And don’t try to get weasley: that specifically includes any member of the family Crocodylia (including alligators). There is a carve-out for domesticated companion animals, but alligators cannot be domesticated. Joie Henney, who owns a TikTok-famous pet alligator in Pennsylvania, explained to the Washington Post that his “WallyGator” has always had an unusually docile personality; he did not train the aggressive, territorial gator instincts out of his pet.
Should I get one anyway?
OK, fine—how is our rescued alligator friend doing?
The alligator is being cared for at the Bronx Zoo. She came in cold, sluggish, and emaciated, and too weak to eat. When they get cold, alligators stop eating and go into a hibernation-like state. At 15 pounds, though, this gator weighs less than half of what she should for her size. She also, at some point along the way, ate a bathtub stopper. The good news is, zookeepers got her warmed up and are tube-feeding her food, fluids, and medicine.
She ate what now?
It’s not clear yet what will happen with the bathtub stopper. “The alligator is currently in too weakened a condition to attempt removal,” the zoo said yesterday in a statement. “We will continue to provide supportive care for her and determine next steps based on how she responds to treatment.”
Say I have a pet alligator. Say she’s getting bigger … and getting bitey. Would Prospect Park be a good place to drop her off for animal control to find? Asking for a friend!
NO. Do not dump your alligator, or your turtle, or your ducks in Prospect Park. For the love of all things good, do not dump a trash bag full of wriggling swamp eels in Prospect Park. It is illegal to abandon animals in New York City parks. It is illegal to remove wild animals from your property in New York City, too; call a professional. Finally, don’t flush your gator. They will not survive the sewer; there is not a colony waiting for them.
Why wouldn’t they survive in the sewers? They seem tough!
New York’s climate is too cold for an invasive alligator population to establish itself, in the sewers or elsewhere. In 60 years, though, if we don’t curb emissions, New York’s climate is on track to feel like Arkansas, and then maybe invasive alligators could become a threat. (Though probably not in the sewers, which are inhospitable for other reasons.)
To circle back to the “animals are like people” man-on-the-street quote—come on now. Plenty of animals belong in lakes. The lake in Prospect Park is home to birds, fish, and snapping turtles.
Yes, fine, he was anthropomorphizing a bit. The point is: poor gator! The lake is cold. Plus, people aren’t allowed in that lake and neither are alligators.
And, more generally, animals are like people in that we can both harm unfamiliar ecosystems (see: Pablo Escobar’s hippos, which have multiplied and are displacing native species; human history generally). Dumping animals isn’t just bad for the animals—it’s bad for their surroundings.
Animals are also like people in that they sometimes are people: See, again: Pablo Escobar’s hippos, which were recently given legal personhood for the purposes of a court case. The Prospect Park alligator does not have legal personhood. But she does have plenty of people rooting for her.
If I live in Florida, then can I dump my unwanted pet alligator in a lake?
Legally, no. More importantly: Animals are also like people in that you should not abandon them in lakes.