Wednesday, August 13, 2008


“Never smile at a crocodile.
No, you can't get friendly with a crocodile.
Don't be taken in by his welcome grin,
He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin.”

The words of this old song (popular in the middle of last century after the appearance of the Walt Disney film, Peter Pan) came to mind when I saw the - dare I say – smirks on the faces of the crocodiles at the Cairns Tropical Zoo in North Queensland. “Welcome grin”? Hardly! Supercilious smirk would be my estimation. And ugly. Yes, “ugly” would be a fair description of the faces lolling around inside the enclosure. No beauty contest winners here. Not even the odd second prize.

Can it climb trees?
How fast can it run?
Is it a greedy feeder?
These were some of the question asked at the crocodile show. Sort of safety first questions but purely academic to me for I would prefer to keep well away from their natural habitat (the keeper suggested that this was the best safety measure of all). Seeing them from a distance in a safe enclosure in a zoo is quite enough to satisfy my adventurous spirit.

It was a little tense and worrying to see the handler in the pen with these dangerous creatures. Well he didn't really “handle” them in the same way as the snake handler allowed the snakes to slither all over him but he did appear to treat them rather off-handedly. Oh, how languidly the old tick-tock appeared to rest in the water. But be not deceived. As the keeper moved backwards and forwards in front of his snout the suspicious, half-open eyes followed him from side to side. His primeval brain may not be very large, but what he has was surely “imagining how well you'd fit within his skin”.

The keeper showed little concern. Crocks are not greedy feeders, he assured us (and himself, probably) and a well-fed croc is unlikely to attack. Which is all very well in a zoo where they can be kept well fed, but what about in the wild where one doesn't know when Charlie Croc (or Crissy Croc) had the last bite to eat. Make no mistake, the emphasis is on the BITE. The speed at which the mouth opened and the resounding “snap” to devour the proffered chicken carcass was frightening. As was the force with which that upper jaw slammed shut! Ever been bitten by a rottweiler? Ever looked at his snarling, salivery mouth and shuddered? Those who know, tell us that Mr Croc has fifteen times more power in his snap than that puppy (the crocodile's word, not mine). Ouch! Luckily for us their jaws cannot open so easily; so grab that snout!

And another thing. The water in his enclosure is too shallow for him to get the same propulsion that is possible in deeper water. An unexpected onslaught would be quite unlikely. I don't know about you, but I am never completely convinced by the term “unlikely”.

Would he jump out of the water and chase a person? Quite unlikely. Crocodiles are not in the business of chasing. They are ambush predators. They can run 15-17 kilometres per hour over twice their own length. Like running the 100 metres in about 20 seconds and so most of us could beat a crocodile in the 100 metres sprint. So you have only ever run it in 19 seconds. Don't worry! I'm sure you would find that extra second somewhere. A crocodile would not bother finishing the race. If he hasn't caught his prey in 3-4 metres he gives up and waits till next time. This is a strategy which seems to have worked very well, for they have been around for a very long time. They were there when dinosaurs walked the earth. They were around when Muttaburrasaurus was grazing the outback and Kronosaurus frolicked in our inland seas.

Yes, the crocodile has remained. For our pleasure? Pleasure perhaps not; but certainly to evoke our “Oohs” and “Aaahs” when it displays some of its pre-historic traits.

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