Precious Reptiles

I’m sitting in the staffroom at Koorana Crocodile farm talking to the guys who manage the resident crocs. I’m here to look at the phenomenon of crocodile farming and see what it has to tell us about animal domestication and what this process tells us about what it means to be human. The workers exude the kind of confidence that derives from interacting daily with dangerous animals. There’s Robbie, the bearded Canadian biologist, who manages the selective breeding of crocs for those desirable scale rows and large clutch sizes. There’s Luke, the laconic cattle wrangler from up north, who landed a job on the farm after featuring in a reality TV show as an apprentice croc handler. And there’s Layne, the quiet teenager in the motocross jersey, who’s new to the job and in charge of the ‘babies’, the young crocs in their first year of life.

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My first surprise comes when Robbie tells me how farmed crocs are harder to manage than wild ones. “You can bluff a wild croc with sudden movement”, he says “but farm raised ones are not so easily intimidated.” This can make things difficult when it comes to collecting eggs as the crocs are very protective of their clutches and, being familiar with their handlers, will not readily give them up. But the handlers bring their own set of skills to the table in this relationship. Luke tells me how each croc has a distinct personality and through familiarization, a handler can come to predict how a croc is going to act in certain circumstances. “Once you learn a croc’s idiosyncrasies, you can pretty much predict what he’ll do.” But even this is not a simple matter because crocodile personalities change with the seasons of the year; a croc who’s placid in July might be a raging terror in February. This, I’m told, is why it’s important for a handler to work for at least a year at the farm before he or she can navigate the complexities of croc handling.

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Another characteristic of crocs that emerges from the conversation is what I would describe as their physical and emotional sensitivity, and these two characteristics often combine to make things difficult for the handlers. For example, Robbie was once charged with the job of moving a huge adult male named Blondie. He tried six times and with each attempt Blondie became ever more wary, hiding himself in the water at the sound of Robbie’s approaching footsteps. Robbie gave up, Luke stepped in and lassoed Blondie at the first attempt.

It also turns out that crocs get attached to particular handlers and often refuse food if it is given by the wrong person. But it’s not just in relations with handlers that crocs are sensitive. Adam, the farm manager, tells me about a male named Penjara. He had pride of place at the farm in the lake in front of the restaurant where tourists could watch him and where Adam’s wife sprayed him with water every day; something he apparently enjoyed. But when one of the female crocs was removed from the lake and relocated, Penjara withdrew into himself and refused food for two months. Adam is unequivocal about what Penjara was doing, “He was sulking.” In fact this is quite common among crocs – when there is some kind of disturbance to their routine or when something is taken from them they can ‘sulk’; they refuse food, and avoid people for very long periods. For a crocodile farm that relies on crocs getting bigger, getting them to eat is a priority and so handlers must be able to anticipate these tantrums (their words not mine) and deal with the crocs in a way that prevents them.

So much for the simplicity of croc farming. It turns out that in addition to the physical needs of the crocs, farmers must provide for crocodiles’ emotional needs. They need to understand events and remember crocs’ life histories as well as monitor crocodiles’ relationships with other crocs and their changing moods as the seasons change. In this way, crocodile farming elicits some specifically human traits such as empathy, cause/effect reasoning, and even theory of mind. In building a set of enclosures and filling them with crocs, these crocodile farmers are not just following a set plan for a successful farm. They are inserting themselves into the social lives of the crocodiles and in turn bringing the crocs into their own social lives. They form attachments with particular individuals and bring a lot more than technical skill to their practices. They bring to the process a set of very complex capacities that are definitive of humans and deploy these in what turns out to be a mutual flourishing of Homo sapiens and Crocodilus porosus.