He thought, at first, that they were snakes. Two enormous contractor bags, bursting with serpents, ripped open and spilling onto the path along the southwestern edge of Prospect Park Lake, looking like the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But they were another nightmare entirely: eels. Hundreds of foot-long eels, writhing lethargically and ready to die.
Andrew Orkin had been running. (Not from the eels, at least initially.) A composer by day, he’d jogged from his home in Prospect Lefferts Gardens through sunset in the park. The crowds had diminished as the afternoon’s humid barbecues thinned out, and as he rounded the southwestern edge of the park on Sunday, he slowed to stretch in a quiet spot along the lake near Vanderbilt Playground. Then he picked up on a sudden commotion. A woman screamed. Whipping around, Andrew glimpsed a terrible, wriggling pile. Could those be snakes leaking out of that bag? The woman seemed to think so. Andrew isn’t a New Yorker—he grew up in South Africa—and he knows about snakes. He was ready to sprint off, until a fisherman tipped him to the strangeness at hand.
Dominick Pabon, who was nearby by the lake’s shore, has been catfishing there at night since he was 14. He’s seen some shit, but nothing like this. But Dom, a chef and oyster caterer, knows the park—its ecology, its rules, its derelictions—and he notices when things are unusual. He’d come from Sunset Park with his wife for the evening’s cool water, which draws catfish into shallower catching range. When Dom spied the man wearing all white with the sacks in tow, he knew something was up.
The man had come from just outside the park, seemingly from a waiting car, walking with the calm of someone who would like to be ignored. He dragged two heavy black plastic trash bags alongside him. The plain white outfit, Andrew thought, suggested that he was a kitchen or market worker. He knew what he was doing, Dom believed.
A twig lay in his path, and it snagged one of the sacks, tearing it open and freeing dozens of eels. With still some 30 yards to the lake, and a growing clique of onlookers beginning to indignantly ask what he was doing, the bringer of eels began to panic. “I’m saving their lives!” he promised as he picked up the eels and began to toss them into the lake. “It was a pretty unusual thing to to see. So, not that surprising for 2020,” Andrew says. “It was one of those things where it’s like ‘Oh yeah this seems this seems totally, uh, on point.”
Dom wasn’t having it though. He’d caught a few of these black spotted eels before at the lake, in recent years—two-footers. They aren’t supposed to be there. In 2015, the Parks Department installed an eel ladder to help American eels cross the East 182nd Street Dam and repopulate the Bronx River, but Dom says they’re not native to Prospect Park, and according to the Prospect Park Alliance, they most definitely have not been stocked in the lake by the Parks Department. (Though this report, from 1971, says that a couple may have been tossed in by the sponsors of a fishing contest.) Dom was furious at what he saw as a damaging act. In a video captured during the event, Dom confronts the eel-bringer in futility, and pleads with him to stop, before resigning himself to observation. “You’re corrupt, dude,” he seethes.
The old heads who have always come to hunt the lake’s bass have seen fewer and fewer fish in recent years, and Dom is sure it’s the result of the dumping of invasive species. “That’s what’s messing up the whole ecosystem,” he says. “The eels populate like bunnies and they eat everything. So they’re stealing from the native fish.”
He suspects that the eels came from a pet-shop tank, the kind he often sees in his neighborhood. Maybe something had gone wrong with the tanks, he suggests, and the eels had begun a slow in-store death, so the eel liberator had headed over to the park to perhaps save them. They were moving so slowly as they were released, he thought, that they had to have been struggling for a while.
Andrew called the police, who seemed as surprised as he was, but were relatively unhelpful. He later called 311, where he was informed that there was no clear protocol for a complaint about the dumping of live eels in a lake, and transferred back to the cops.
Dom and his wife, for their part, stayed in the park for two more hours, attempting to flag down a policeman—to no avail. “There were like three paddy wagons that had their lights on, but they kept passing us. I was waving my arms wearing a white T-shirt under the lights. They could see me and they kept going,” Dom said. “What if I had really been in trouble like with something else?”