The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 18, 2020 1:00 am

Swamp eels get dumped into New York park lake

Associated Press

NEW YORK – Andrew Orkin was taking a break from his evening jog to sit by Prospect Park Lake when he turned around and was startled to see a tangle of wriggling snakes.

“And quite a big pile – fully alive,” said Orkin, a composer who lives near the Brooklyn park.

They turned out to be eels that had escaped from one of two large plastic bags that split open as a man dragged them to the shoreline. After dumping the eels in the lake – bystanders said there were at least 100 – the man walked away, explaining that “I just want to save lives.”

The illegal release late last month became a curiosity on social media, but the dumping of exotic animals in urban parks isn't new. In cities across the country, nonnative birds, turtles, fish and lizards have settled into, and often disturbed, local ecosystems.

“People like animals and they sometimes think they're doing a good thing by letting them go,” said Jason Munshi-South, urban ecologist at Fordham University.

“Most will die. Some will become a problem, and then there's no going back.”

Based on photos taken by bystanders, officials identified them as swamp eels native to Southeast Asia like those that have been found in at least eight states.

Once introduced – often after being purchased at local live fish markets, officials say – the eels eat almost anything including plants, insects, crustaceans, frogs, turtles and other fish.

And they could prey upon or compete with the park's native species for however long they survive, said Katrina Toal, deputy director of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation's Wildlife Unit.

New York City has a long history of people introducing exotic species into its parks.

In 1890, Shakespeare enthusiasts released a flock of about 60 European starlings in Central Park that grew into a current population of hundreds of millions nationwide that outcompete native birds, destroy crops and occasionally snarl jet engines.

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