Image: American Alligator
M. Spencer Green  /  AP file
A 3 1/2- to 4-foot American Alligator swims along the North branch of the Chicago River, Monday, Aug. 23, 2010, in Chicago. The alligator was the second to be sighted in the area that month. On Aug. 6, 2010 a 2-1/2 foot alligator was captured nearby.
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updated 6/3/2011 7:44:00 PM ET 2011-06-03T23:44:00

Sewers are dark, dangerous, and scary places. There's lots of nasty stuff down there, from rats to garbage and, well, sewage. But what about the infamous colonies of alligators?

That claim has been around for decades, and you've probably heard some version of tale that started it, in which a young boy gets a baby alligator for his birthday and flushes it down the toilet, not knowing what else to do about it. Years later, as the story goes, that same boy reaches into a sewer grate for a lost baseball, and his arm is ripped off by his former pet, now monstrous and ravenous for blood.

According to folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends," (2001, ABC-CLIO) the story is widely known and has appeared in many forms, including TV shows and horror films.

Indeed, "queries about the sewergator rumors regularly arrive at the offices of the New York City Bureau of Sewers and are routinely denied.... [One source for the story is] Robert Daley's 1959 book 'The World Beneath the City' which included an interview with a man claiming to have been sewer commissioner in the 1930s when a campaign was mounted to clean all the gators out of the sewer system."

This seemed like solid evidence that, even if alligators no longer lurk in the city's sewers, they did at one time — and were enough of a menace that the city initiated a program to eradicate them. However, Brunvand notes, further investigation revealed that the man "had never been commissioner, and, in fact, had delighted in spinning outrageous yarns."

Trumping all myths, however, is the fact that alligators wouldn't survive long in sewers. In a 1982 interview with The New York Times, sewer bureau spokesman John T. Flaherty said, "I could cite you many cogent, logical reasons why the sewer system is not a fit habitat for an alligator. But suffice it to say that, in the 28 years I have been in the sewer game, neither I nor any of the thousands of men who have worked to build, maintain or repair the sewer system has ever seen one, and a 10-foot, 800-pound alligator would be hard to miss."

Still, New York City is a big place, and known for its strangeness. Some people have exotic pets, and it's possible that there are one or more doomed, miserable baby alligators somewhere. But finding (or putting) an alligator in a New York City sewer does not mean that decades of stories about giant alligators in sewers are true.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is www.RadfordBooks.com.

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