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 music 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, the man walked away, explaining to bystanders 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.
New Yorkers free thousands of non-native animals every year, many of them abandoned pets that quickly die. But others can survive, reproduce and end up causing lasting harm.
“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.”
New York state and city officials say it’s too soon to know how the eels in Prospect Park might affect local species. But 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.