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Animals in the Chicago River

Alligators, otters, beavers and rusty crayfish have all made the river their home.

Dip into a little research about what kind of wildlife lives in and around the Chicago River, and you’ll come up with a long list of what used to be here: egrets and eagles, lynx and panthers. And while no one’s bemoaning the lack of panthers hanging around the Merch Mart, one gets the feeling we missed out on the golden age of ecological diversity. Not so: According to John Quail, director of watershed planning for Friends of the Chicago River, there are a few animals you might not expect cavorting in our waters.

ALLIGATORS Last June, a metalworker in Bridgeport spotted a five-foot-long gator cruising around the river’s South Branch. The theory goes that someone had kept it as a pet, then released it when it became unmanageable, which sounds exactly like the kind of thing you tell a city full of people afraid of being eaten by alligators.

OTTERS The little YouTube stars were once plentiful along the river, but as Quail says, they didn’t come back until the river cleaned up a bit. An otter was spotted in 2007 by Union Station, looking for a transfer.

BEAVERS Beavers have been showing up more and more lately—three appeared last summer, and one caused some controversy when it turned up dead in North Pond. On Yelp, we ran across a posting titled, “I saw a fricking beaver at Diversey Harbor today!” No better evidence of Chicagoans’ interest in their local environment exists.

RUSTY CRAYFISH Quail calls these little guys “gumbo crayfish,” but scientists have dubbed them “nasty invaders” because of the way they’ve taken over the Great Lakes region. There are no environmentally sound ways to reduce their populations, but when Quail calls them “gumbo crayfish,” we figure he has a plan.

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