How Australia's pet crocs become pest crocs
Some owners set them loose instead of bringing them to crocodile refuges. But the pet trade helps wild crocs, too.
She watches TV on the couch with him, rolls over on her back to get her tummy tickled, making squeaking-barking sounds to indicate her delight, and is uncharacteristically (for her species) pliant while being fed. Her meals consist of goldfish, defrosted rats, mice, and day-old chickens.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now four years old and four feet long, Stampy, a female crocodile, was once someone's abandoned pet. She was found one night wandering the streets of suburban Darwin in northern Australia.
Stampy was picked up and nursed back to health from a dehydrated state by Chris Pebedy, who captures deadly snakes and other reptiles from urban areas for a living. Mr. Pebedy keeps nine crocodiles and one alligator on his property. Stampy is unusual for a saltwater croc.
"It's very special when you see a crocodile with personality," says the young "snake wrangler" who gets some 1,500 calls for help in a year. "Most are just deadly predators."
At first, Pebedy thought Stampy was quiet and unaggressive because she was sick, but he soon decided that the animal sensed that – as he puts it – her life was in his hands and submitted to being looked after.
While all crocodiles are dangerous without exception, among owners there is a preference for "salties" versus "freshies" because the former get less stressed in captivity.
Pebedy lives in the rural part of the Top End (the colloquial term for northern Australia), where he is allowed to keep the reptiles even when they grow to their full adult size, about 13 feet.
Most suburbanites, however, can only own a croc if it's less than 62 centimeters (about two feet) long – which works out to be a croc that's no more than 2 years old.
Stampy joins a growing number of saltwater crocodiles in the north of the country that look good in a living room aquarium when they are small, but then must leave the home once they grow larger than two feet.
"They are a novelty pet which need feeding only in two or three days," says Peter Phillips, a ranger with the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service. "This makes them attractive Christmas pets, too."
Customers for the 50 or so crocodiles that are sold to the public annually from Crocodylus Park, a crocodile reserve just outside Darwin in the Northern Territory, come from all across Australia – New South Wales and Victoria as well as within the state. That may also explain the reluctance to return them when they grow up – some owners would have to travel long distances to do that. But most of the problem is in the Northern Territory, which is where Crocodylus is located. People who should return them may just be lazy. The park is just outside Darwin.
"You have to give the crocodile back once it reaches 62 centimeters if you live in a metropolitan or residential area," says Northern Territories pet shop owner Tracy Smith. "But even we are not allowed to take them back once they get beyond 62 centimeters. Then you have to take them to a croc farm like Crocodylus Park."
Anyone with a permit (and it's not hard to get one for a baby crocodile) can buy a foot-long crocodile from a pet shop for around A$300 (US$262). But when it comes to returning the pets to the shops or the crocodile farms that abound, owners (including retired couples, parents, and college students) often get lazy.