Crocodiles and Other Creatures

There are a number of fascinating aspects to Australia, and one of those is certainly its crocodile population.  Saltwater crocodiles are found in the seas, estuaries, and some inland waters of northern Australia. They were once hunted nearly to extinction but now that they are a protected species, there are plenty around.  Almost every estuary has a sign that says WARNING in big red letters, followed by a strict admonition not to go swimming, not to clean fish near the water’s edge, and not to stand near the water’s edge.  Seeing several fishermen right by the water, in various places, left me unsure about how dangerous such activities actually are, but I did harbor a pretty deep fear of these huge reptiles.  Australians love to tell you stories about people who have been killed by crocs, and I’d heard my share.  Nevertheless, I really wanted to see one (or two), so one evening, finding a convenient tree on the edge of an estuary, I settled myself into the crook of a branch ten feet up.   After an hour of watching with eagle eyes, seeing nothing, I decided to satisfy my curiosity in safe surroundings.  I visited a farm open to tourists, where crocodiles are raised for meat.

Near a town called Innisfail, I found an innocuous building , with a series of sheds and several acres of grounds.  I paid $12, and a smiling young woman waved me through the door that led out back, saying, “We’ll be feeding them shortly, but you can walk around by yourself.”

Various paths led past chain link fences that enclosed trees, shrubs and ponds.  Through one of the fences, I saw an endlessly long scaly tail lying on the ground, with triangular spines sticking up, getting bigger as they progressed away from the tip.  A few steps further, and I could see that the tail segued into a massive leathery body, with lots of knobs.  When I say ‘massive,’ that is what I mean.  The thing was lying completely stationary and I thought, that cannot be real. I mean, I’ve heard crocodiles can be five meters long, and I know that’s fifteen feet, but . . . this has got to be a plastic replica.

I bent down to take a closer look at the huge head, laid along the ground, narrow nostrils at one end of a very long jaw, closed protruding eyes at the other.  One implacable yellow eye opened; nothing else moved.  My (small) head was only two feet away.  I stood up, stepping back.  It didn’t matter how many times I’d been told about them, I was not prepared to be this close to such a huge creature, so obviously capable of killing me in one quick movement, with only a flimsy fence between us.  I took a few deep breaths.  “Well!  I’m impressed,” I informed the animal, which remained comatose.  We stared at each other for a few minutes before I walked on to find several more in other cages.  They weren’t all as big as that first one, but they were all big.  Several were lying with their huge mouths gaping open to cool themselves down, so there was ample opportunity to examine the impressive array of teeth lining their more-than-foot-long jaws, which, I had read, could snap at something like 20,000 pounds per square inch, severing a human limb with ease.  They are generally very lethargic, although one jumped at me as I was walking past its cage.  I jumped back a good few feet even though there was a fence between us.  The six inch wooden fence posts  holding up the chain link netting just didn’t seem adequate, and the workers did admit – or rather, boast — that a croc had once bitten right through one of the posts.  Why not?  They are very efficient killing machines, originally designed to prey on dinosaurs millions of years ago.  They can stay under water waiting for their prey for up to four hours.  They don’t have to eat for a year, because they store fat.  They only eat a few pounds of meat at a time, even if they kill a whole cow; and they won’t eat it unless it’s fresh.  They live for seventy or a hundred years, and they lay around fifty eggs every year.  Only one percent of the eggs that hatch survive in the wild, but still . .

Following the sound of voices, I found two workers, both muscular young men, with a wheelbarrow full of pieces of meat.  They were about to start feeding.  A small group of onlookers like myself were hanging around the cage where two twelve foot monsters were lying by a concrete pool of dirty water.  The crocs were presumably able to smell the food, and although neither of them actually moved their bodies, they did lift their heads to regard us balefully with those reptilian eyes.  One of the lads, a blonde guy, addressed us with a grin.

“The one closest to us is Charlie, he’s been here since the farm started and he’s a friendly sort.  He’ll usually take the meat from my hand.  We’ll see what kind of mood he’s in today!“

Unlocking the door, he walked into the pen, a wooden-handled rake in one hand and half a chicken in the other.  The meat dangling from his outstretched hand, he edged forward slowly, saying “C’mon, boy, c’mon on!  Here’s your dinner, want your dinner?”  Without any warning, the croc propelled itself forward and up, grabbing the chicken out of his hand, swallowing it in one gulp, and quickly settling back into its original position by the water.  There was a general murmur of awe and alarm from the group of onlookers, and I saw one woman clutching her boyfriend’s arm in fright.  Several people stepped backwards.  I was simply astounded.  Are these guys stupid or just macho?  What is to stop the croc from taking his hand, or at least a few fingers, as well as the chicken, if it’s in a bad ‘mood?’

Still keeping as far away as he could, the young man used the rake to rub its head, and then its throat as it lifted its head up.  “They like to have their heads scratched,” he told us cheerily.

I nodded at part of a broken rake lying on the other side of the cage.  “The croc that broke that rake, was it just feeling frisky, or didn’t it like the way its head was being rubbed?”  I asked.

Blondie shrugged, as he backed towards the door.  “It happens sometimes,” he said dismissively.  He took another piece of chicken and threw it over by the second croc, which darted forward to swallow it down.

After feeding the crocs in three other cages, the two workers took us to four long sheds.

“The adults are the breeding stock,“ Blondie told us.  “This where we keep the young ones, who will be slaughtered for meat.”  We entered, and walked along a raised concrete walkway that divided those of different ages.  Below us, on either side, were piles of crocodiles, ranging from two foot long upwards, hundreds of them lying around, in the water and out of it, half on top of each other, or almost alone.  There were so many that hardly an inch of the bare concrete was visible.  Crocodiles were everywhere.

“We have over four thousand of these smaller crocs on the farm, aged between one and four years old, which is when they’re slaughtered,” Blondie told us. “Whenever a female lays her eggs, we collect them to hatch them in an incubator.  That’s how we get all these little guys.”

I surveyed the scene, as thousands of unblinking eyes surveyed us.  These animals were slightly more active than their parents, but still, only the occasional one moved as we approached, propelling itself into the water and floating away with only its eyes showing, two little bumps above the surface.  This is an efficient way to produce food, since they take up so little space and use all their energy for growth; much less work than cattle.

“They don’t mind being so crowded?” I asked.

“Oh no,” replied Blondie with an air of certainty.  “They’re perfectly happy as long as they have water and food.”

Hmmm . . . how can you tell a happy croc from an unhappy croc?  I’ve been a farmer, I can tell an unhappy pig when I see one.  But crocodiles . . .

“How do you get them from one pen to another when you need to move them?  You must have to clean the pens sometimes, yes?” I asked.

“Grab them by the tail and throw them,” said the worker.

“You grab them by the tail?  Every one of them?  Didn’t you say there are a thousand in this one shed?”  Is this guy for real?

He nodded, grinning.  And then slightly sheepishly, he added, “I did get bitten the last time we moved them, though, you gotta be quick.”

I gleaned a few more interesting facts from literature back at the office.  Freshwater crocodiles are a different species, much smaller, less common, and less dangerous.  These so-called saltwater, or estuarine, crocodiles can live in salt or fresh water, but usually choose estuaries, perhaps because there are always plenty of fish to eat in an estuary.  The males have been known to swim three thousand miles across the ocean from New Guinea to Australia, mate, and return home.  The females, which are much smaller, apparently never go more than a couple of miles.  Occasionally they have been known to attack people in tents at night, near water, but they don’t usually go looking for prey, they just lie in wait at the water‘s edge.  They are extremely patient, quick and powerful.  Once they get hold of their prey, they drag it under water in what is called the death roll.  Because their jaws are so powerful, a crocodile bite destroys the tissue, and even someone who survives an attack will take a long time to heal.  If a croc starts spending time near humans, or starts eating some farmer’s cattle, the authorities catch it and take it to a croc farm.

I questioned Blondie about how common crocodile attacks really are.  “As long as you stay away from estuaries or places where you know there are crocs, you’ll be fine,” the worker assured me.  “Just don’t go in muddy water, where you can’t see them.”

I didn’t believe that he had the slightest idea what a crocodile is capable of in the wild.

I left the sheds, thankful to be outside.  A few emus and kangaroos were wandering around freely, and two male cassowaries were in a large fenced area.  Cassowaries are another endangered species, only found in northern Oz.  They are flightless birds, bigger than emus, but with the same sort of dark unfeathery feathers.  A thick horn on top of their heads helps them to make their way through brush.  They have a long blue neck – not just blue tinged, but vivid blue.  Red wattles hang down in front of their chests, like turkeys, and there are red fleshy bumps at the back of the neck.  The beak, which is flattened, like emus, has two small yellow stripes on each side of it, and a small stripe on top.

One of these strange looking birds came up to me as I stood on the other side of his chain link fence, so I fed him some of the bread they had given me for the emus and kangaroos.  He took it out of my hand very sweetly, and I had a nice conversation with him.  Then he ran off with that strange loping gallop, his red wattles bouncing, and I looked up to see Blondie approaching with some other tourists in tow.  The cassowary came back and stood nearby watching us.

“This is Henry,” the worker said authoritatively, “and he is a very dangerous animal because he has a third nail on his foot which is sharp and long, like a knife.”  That was true, I could see it.  “He’ll jump up and try to attack you through the fence.  Watch, you’ll see!”  He started poking the handle of his rake through the fence.

“C’mon, Henry, c’mon, show us what you’re made of!”

I started to walk away, unable to watch him baiting the bird, when Henry obligingly leapt up, thrusting his feet at the fence.  The worker jumped back.

“Has he ever managed to get you?“ asked one of the other tourists.

Blondie nodded.  “He did once jab me in the thigh.“

Better luck next time, Henry, maybe you can get him in the balls.

“Are cassowaries like emus,  it’s the males who take care of the chicks?”  I asked.
“Yes, the males do all the parenting, they incubate the eggs too.”

Henry was patrolling the other side of the fence, pacing slowly to and fro, planting his big four toe-ed feet down with deliberation, and gyrating his long blue neck to keep a beady eye on us as we moved away.

I think you are a pretty cool bird, I hope you don’t mind being caged in.
Back in the office, they had crocodile teeth and crocodile meat for sale.  I can’t leave without tasting it.  “What’s it like?” I asked the woman behind the counter, regarding the white meat with slight distaste.  I didn‘t much like them when they were alive, maybe I wouldn‘t like them when they were dead.

“It’s a lot like chicken,“ she reassured me.  So I bought a sandwich; it was indeed a little like chicken, with a slight tang to it.

Crocs lose their old teeth and replace them on a regular basis so there is an endless supply of teeth available, as long as someone is willing to go into a cage to collect them.  You could buy one for ten dollars, or twenty if you wanted it already made into a necklace.  The idea of crocodile energy hanging around my neck didn’t appeal to me.  More interesting was a baby croc on the table, about a foot in length, with its long jaw tightly taped up so that it couldn’t open its mouth to bite our fingers off.  I regarded it with a mixture of curiosity and repulsion.  Most baby animals are very sweet but this one was simply a small replica of its parents – a strange alien ugly reptilian thing.  I got to feel those spikes and bumps – they are hard and scaly, just like they look.  The reptile sat quite still as I held it in my hands, looking at me with its fathomless black eyes, not struggling at all.  Left alone on the table, it only briefly tried to walk away.  Even a crocodile can’t be enjoying this, though.  Unless it’s an exhibitionist.

Several cages around the walls contained snakes.  Blondie opened one, taking out a green and yellow python, about five feet long.  “Oh, can I hold it?” I asked in delight, and he draped it around my neck.  Its tail hung over one of my arms and its head on the other.  It slid slowly and sensuously over my bare flesh, its skin dry and slightly rough.  As its head dangled close to the floor, the worker took it from me, and hung it around someone else.  Not everyone was pleased: one of the tourists had a snake phobia.  She kept saying, “No,” backing around the table, as Blondie approached her with the snake in his hands and a big grin on his face.  He left her alone until she wasn’t looking and then started to slip the snake over her neck.  She jumped away, saying, “No!” again very sharply.  I wanted to slap his stupid grinning face.  But, anyone who is willing to do this kind of work with crocodiles every day, has got to be pretty thick.

I did see a few of those alien eyes floating around on water’s surface in the wild, further north, near Darwin, where their presence or absence dictates human behavior to a considerable degree.   Many people will never go into or near any body of water up there; and if a crocodile is sighted in the sea or in fresh water, the area is closed to swimmers and boaters for days or weeks.  In a place with a climate that frequently makes you dream of being immersed in cool water, I found that difficult.  But Australians tend to have an undiscriminating fondness for everything uniquely Australian, and that includes crocodiles.  The government is not likely to remove its ban on hunting any time soon.

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