When Sergeant Judith Velosky showed up to work in Prospect Park one Sunday last month, she did not expect to rescue an alligator.
Velosky is one of the city’s 95 Urban Park Rangers, a decades-old agency within the city’s parks department, that aims to maintain a safe environment for human visitors and animal residents.
She was having coffee in her office, a no-frills cottage tucked behind a dog run and the Prospect Park Tennis Center, when an unusual alert came over her radio: two maintenance workers had been startled by an alligator at the lake.
Velosky jumped into her green van and rushed down to the lake.
By the time she arrived, one of her colleagues had trapped the animal in a snare pole, which looks like a metal lasso. Wearing her park-issued gloves, Velosky and another parks staffer lifted the animal into a crate. The hardest part wasn’t holding a nearly 5-foot long alligator; it was getting the tail inside. She had to wind it around to fit.
Since that morning, the animal has been named “Godzilla” and is recuperating and receiving care at the Bronx Zoo. Godzilla has a lot of recovering to do: Zoo staff discovered it had swallowed a bathtub stopper and weighs just half of what it should.
On a chilly afternoon two weeks after the alligator incident, Velosky was back by the lake, where geese were honking and an occasional swan glided across the water.
She said her memory of the morning was a blur; autopilot kicks in whenever she does an animal rescue, which is about once a week.
In her 13 years on the job, Velosky — a mother of two — has saved some of the city’s swans, chickens, guinea pigs and a variety of other woodland critters. Birds regularly injure themselves flying into windows. Raccoons sometimes fall out of trees or get dumped in the park. Once someone handed her a pig. But an alligator? That was a first.
NYC’s Urban Park Rangers program was founded in 1979 under Mayor Ed Koch. A New York Times headline at the time proclaimed the rangers “a force for order.” The previous year, vandalism had cost the city’s parks around $2 million – roughly $9 million in today’s dollars.
Today, rangers serve a variety of functions: Part law enforcement, part tour guide, part animal control officer. They are easily identifiable by their uniforms, which include a felt Smoky-the-bear-style hat most of the year. (They wear a straw hat in summer months.)
Rita McMahon, director of the Wild Bird Fund, which cares for some of the parks’ injured birds, said the rangers are “dedicated partners” in caring for the city’s wildlife.
Rangers patrol the parks to ensure folks obey the rules. They don’t carry guns but they do pack pepper spray, handcuffs and a baton. Velosky said she’s never had to use those tools, and that rangers focus on “enforcement through education.”
Velosky, a former potter with a fine arts degree, made a career switch to become a ranger a little more than a decade ago. She liked the idea of a steady job where she’d be outside every day.
The best part of her work, said Velosky, is helping people discover the joy and wonder of the outdoors.
Along those lines, park rangers organize archery classes, canoeing trips, afterschool programs and more. In the summer, they host overnight camping in all five boroughs.
“It's only Prospect Park. It's not Yosemite,” said Velosky. “But they're so excited to be a part of a ranger program and to get that experience.”
Despite her love of nature — and unlike many Brooklyn residents — she can’t unwind at Prospect Park on her days off; it’s too hard to relax when she’s always thinking about the park. Instead, she opts for the Rockaways.