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.

William West/AFP/Getty Images
Pet quality? Lucy Fraser takes a close look at 18-month-old 'Coochie,' a saltwater crocodile, in Brisbane, on Australia's east coast. Pet shops can sell crocs shorter than two feet long here.

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.

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.

Ranger Phillips is tired of calls from people in suburban stores or cafes who spy the sharp-toothed reptiles trundling along the sidewalks or loitering in malls.

When he goes to investigate, he finds that all have the missing scoot – the bumpy part that runs parallel to the tail – that indicates the animal was sold in a pet shop.

"If there is food in malls and other places and you let it go there," Phillips says, "the crocodile will try to stay there. And before you know it, it's grown to more than a meter," he says. "And of course it's dangerous."

Crocodiles are variously abandoned on golf courses, at hamburger joints, and just about anywhere else. One croc was discovered in a couple's swimming pool – while they were skinny-dipping.

Phillips says he has better things to do than chase abandoned crocodiles.

Since 1971, when crocodiles were declared an endangered species in the Top End after crocodile hunters had begun to complain of their scarcity (there were only around 500 crocodiles left in the Australian wild then), there was an attempt to rebuild the population rapidly.

Since then, the crocodile population has not only stabilized but has reached comfortable levels of around 70,000, the result of innovative conservation efforts.

"If you make people understand that the animal is a resource worth saving for use," says Grahame Webb, director of Wildlife Management International and one of the world's leading authorities on crocodiles, "then sure enough, everyone is going to want to save them. So ironically you need to buy more crocodile leather belts and shoes to keep the incentive going." Crocodiles as pets aids this effort, too.

A viable crocodile egg sells for up to A$50 (US$44). Crocodiles breed once a year, producing an average of 50 eggs in one clutch. Mr. Webb says that if the eggs are not saved, about 70 percent die in the nests.

There are at least five crocodile farms in the Top End, and the rivers are teeming with wild crocs. Most locals know which water holes and rivers to avoid.

Aborigines have used the crocodile as a totem for 40,000 years and know how to live alongside the deadly predators, but some tribes are happy to hunt crocodiles for the money.

Occasionally a "rogue" crocodile will hunt in fishing spots or beaches where humans congregate. While Webb is a conservationist, he is far from sentimental.

"These predators are not like sharks – if they find you, they will kill you," he says. "But mostly they are their own worst enemy in the wild, where they maim and kill each other." says Webb. He is widely known for pushing the concept of conserving wildlife through sustainable development.

Webb's logic of conservation is that you don't have to like the animal to want to preserve it. Instead, you have to see how it can serve you.

"You have to be convinced that preserving the animal will be an advantage to you," he says. That's why the poor villager in India doesn't think twice about killing a tiger that is a threat to his children or cattle. The villager in India is not benefiting from preserving the tiger, and so why should he? Conservation will not work if it merely serves those living in London and New York: It has to serve the people who interact with the creatures and mostly its poor people." Besides providing a profit, pet crocodiles are a small way to bring a new understanding of the creature to human beings who are generally unsympathetic to the predator.

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