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NYC police capture 'caiman-in-the-box'

The Associated Press

NEW YORK- See you later, alligator. After while, crocodile. What rhymes with caiman? Well, nothing, really. But that doesn't keep the scaly critters from turning up in New York City, far from their native habitats in the tropical Americas, and replenishing one of the city's most enduring urban legends.

The last time it happened was in June, 2001, when a small caiman was discovered in the Harlem Meer, a lake in the northeast corner of Central Park. After it eluded capture for five days, a self-described alligator expert flew in from a Florida game park to save the city. After some posturing, he used a canoe and a flashlight to retrieve the reptile in minutes.

On Tuesday, police responding to a 911 call in Starrett City, a public housing complex in Brooklyn, found a two-foot caiman (Spanish for anything "crocodilian," according to one Internet site) in a cardboard box, with a shoelace firmly tied around its jaw.

Not requiring outside help, the 75th Precinct cops gathered up the croc-in-the-box and turned it over to Animal Care & Control, a privately funded organization that handles all manner of animals, wild or domestic, that are lost, injured or in distress.

In this case, "the caiman was cold, and we had to warm it up," said Richard Gentles, director of administration for AC&C. But whoever left it in the box was concerned that nobody got hurt, he said. "It was pretty feisty. The shoestring was double-knotted for safety, like a running shoe."

Gentles said the caiman would be turned over to a licensed wildlife care center on Long Island or in New Jersey that specializes in rehabilitation of reptiles and eventually returned to a natural habitat.

Caimans are the most common of all crocodile species, found in lowland and watery environments in a vast region stretching from the southern United States to Brazil, according to one Web site on the species. They can grow to four feet and in rare cases even larger.

One of Gotham's most enduring legends is the alligator-in-the-sewer, which students of the subject trace to Feb. 19, 1935 when a group of teenagers discovered a seven-foot 'gator in a manhole in East Harlem. Hauled out with a rope, it tried feebly to open its jaws and was dispatched with snow shovels, according to a story in The New York Times.

From that incident apparently grew the widespread myth the city's sewers teemed with reptiles that had been bought as souvenir pets in Florida and were discarded when they became too big for their cages.

For the layman -- there's a rhyme with caiman after all -- Gentles said the scenario is not a total crock. "They are brought in illegally from the south, as pets, and they outgrow the fish tank or are too hard to manage," he said.


On the Net:

Florida Museum of Natural History: www.flmnh.ufl.edu

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