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Whales, Turtles, the Alligator, Flaco: Animals in the News

Whales, Turtles, the Alligator, Flaco: Animals in the News

Wild creatures have been in the headlines lately, sometimes in disturbing ways that reflect the impact of climate change.

Good morning. Today we’ll look at what has happened to animals that have made headlines lately.

Five turtles swimming in a pool.
Anna Watts for The New York Times

Whales and sea turtles and alligators and a Eurasian eagle-owl. That doesn’t have the rhythmic punch of “lions and tigers and bears, oh, my.” But it’s what the New York area has seen lately, sometimes in sad conditions. Let’s look at the latest on each one.

Some 23 dead whales have washed ashore along the East Coast since early December, including 12 in New Jersey and New York. The Coast Guard spotted another floating south of the Ambrose shipping channel between the two states on Monday. Two teams from New York determined that, like most of the others, it was a humpback whale.

What’s to blame? Scientists maintain climate change and online shopping — yes, online shopping — have driven up the mortality rate by putting more whales in the path of more ships. “You have to cross your fingers and hope there are no collisions,” said Paul Sieswerda, the executive director of Gotham Whale, a whale research group in New York.

With oceans becoming warmer, whales and menhaden have been feeding in new haunts, often closer to the shore. That’s bad news for the menhaden, silvery fish with a black spot just above and behind the gills, because the whales feed on them. The menhaden population has grown, but they are also preyed on by bigger fish, as well as harvested for Omega fish oil and as bait for crab and lobster traps.

As menhaden remain in coastal waters in the Northeast for more months of the year, hungry whales will follow. “If the bait is there,” said Capt. Timothy Ferrie, a president of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association who has steered ships in and out of New York Harbor for 43 years, “the whales are there.”

As for online shopping, its growth means that more ships carrying merchandise are heading into the ports in New York and New Jersey. The ships themselves are bigger than they once were. The ports in New Jersey became accessible to the world’s largest cargo ships in 2017, after the Bayonne Bridge was raised, increasing the waterway clearance by 64 feet.

There is also more traffic from ships returning to retrieve empty cargo containers that piled up in port, a factor that contributed to supply-chain problems as the pandemic wore on. But extra traffic could mean more collisions with whales. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed enforcing a 10-knot speed limit farther from port and applying it to boats as small as 35 feet long. The idea was to give whales time to get out of the way — or limit the injuries if a collision occurred.

This winter, sick sea turtles have all but overwhelmed the New York Marine Rescue Center, not far from the river in Riverhead, N.Y. It’s the only marine mammal and sea turtle rehabilitation center in New York State, and it has taken in a record number of ailing sea turtles, which face new challenges because of climate change.

As with the whales, “turtles and other species are expanding their normal territory,” said Maxine Montello, the rescue program director at the center. “So more and more turtles are going further north.” A cold snap can leave them cold-stunned, a condition similar to hypothermia that throws them into a state of shock and sends them washing up on beaches.

The rescue center usually treats about 30 or 40 cold-stunned sea turtles during the winter. This year’s numbers are troubling, Montello said: The worst year was 2019, with 85 stranded in six to eight weeks of winter. “But this year, we had 95,” she said.

Of those, 48 are still alive and in the care of the rescue center; the others were either dead when they washed up or perished soon after. The survivors cannot go back to their solitary lives in the ocean until summer, and coexisting in a tank in the rescue center can make some of them grumpy. Montello keeps a list of “tank bullies,” turtles known to push others or steal their food.

Most mornings she serves them breakfast — pieces of frozen squid and cold raw herring, along with pills hidden inside some of them — and then has her own lunch. Usually a salad.

“I haven’t eaten anything from the sea since, I think, middle school,” when she became mesmerized by the ocean, she said. “I just didn’t want it to circle back that I was, you know, eating anybody’s friends.”

The nearly-five-foot-long alligator that was pulled from a lake in Prospect Park last month continues to receive “supportive care, including tube feeding with liquid nourishment in an attempt to stabilize her and allow her to put on weight,” a spokeswoman for the Bronx Zoo said on Tuesday. But the animal, which had swallowed a four-inch-wide bathtub stopper, “is not strong enough at this point to endure any procedure to remove the plug.”

The alligator, named Godzilla by the Animal Care Centers of New York City, which is often called in after alligator sightings, was taken to the zoo after she was rescued. She weighed 15 pounds, less than half the normal weight of her size. Last week the zoo described her as “lethargic and suffering from exposure to cold temperatures” and said she was being given antibiotics, an antifungal medication, fluids and vitamin B.

The Police Department, which has an animal cruelty investigation squad, opened an investigation into where Godzilla had come from. Keeping any reptile is illegal under the city’s health code. She was noticed by a Parks Department maintenance worker on Feb. 19 and pulled from the lake by members of the Parks Enforcement Patrol and the Urban Park Rangers. A police spokesman said on Tuesday that the investigation is continuing.

And now, Flaco speaks, through a Twitter account — @flaco_theowl — that said he was safely ensconced at the north end of Central Park on Tuesday. Flaco or his Twitter wordsmith did not say what he thought of the snow that began on Monday night — 1.8 inches, the first snowfall of more than an inch this winter.

Tomorrow will be the one-month anniversary of Flaco’s flight to freedom. He departed the Central Park Zoo on Feb. 2 after his mesh enclosure was vandalized. Zoo officials and bird watchers fretted that he could not survive on his own.

They also feared that he could not fly very far. He proved them wrong as he worked his way from one end of the park to the other.


Enjoy a mostly sunny day in the mid-40s. In the evening, expect a chance of showers, with temps around the low 40s.


In effect until Tuesday (Purim).

Photo Illustration by The New York Times; Photographs by Kenny Holston/The New York Times and Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times


Dear Diary:

I was walking on a busy Upper East Side sidewalk when a friend texted me. I stepped aside to reply.

Behind me on the corner, a small group of what appeared to be protesters were milling about holding signs with red, green and blue letters.

“Are you with us?” a woman in a houndstooth coat asked.

“No,” I said.

“I’m going to adjust your collar anyway,” she said, moving behind me and gently turning down the collar of my gray wool coat. “I need to adjust your collar.”

“A woman just adjusted my collar,” I texted my friend. “People in this city really have my back.”

I continued walking and passed another cluster of people who were chatting and had similar signs dangling by their feet.

When I got to the end of the block, two women were standing in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking pedestrians from entering.

“The sidewalk’s closed,” one of them said. “We’re filming.”

I slipped past them, leaving the crowded block. I had just walked onto a film set.

Leanna McLennan

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero, Bernard Mokam and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at

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