8. HEALTH CARE
3. CROCS AS PETS
3.1.1 Do caimans, alligators and crocodiles make good pets?
In a word, no.
Be quite clear - crocodilians are definitely not suitable for beginners, and they are not recommended even for intermediate-level hobbyists. If you have never owned a reptile before, then take this valuable piece of advice: do not consider purchasing a crocodilian, and instead look at species like skinks, geckos, agamids or small non-venomous snakes. This is not being patronising, because there are far easier and less expensive ways of learning to keep reptiles in captivity. Crocodilians should only be considered by very experienced individuals who have the resources to look after large, demanding reptiles that are difficult to house, difficult to handle, and increasingly expensive to keep.
Small juvenile crocodilians are deceptive - they seem easy enough to handle, and persuasive dealer talk can easily convince people to part with their cash. But do not be fooled. As they grow larger, crocodilians rapidly become stronger and more boisterous. After only a year, many people can no longer handle their animals and it is very common to see 1 to 2 year old animals being given away or illegally released into the wild. Larger crocodilians are, without a doubt, extremely dangerous animals. They are usually hostile, and most people underestimate just how fast and strong they can be - I've seen a 6 foot crocodile throw three adult men off its back. Crocodilians require skill and experience to handle, and larger animals often require a team of people to deal with safely. Failure to account for this means you risk coming away with very serious injuries. Even a small caiman can put you into hospital and scar you for life.
Bill Moss writes: "This picture (right) shows the results of a bite to the hand of a 23-year-old woman by a young, 3 foot spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus). Another person was handling the animal when the woman attempted to point to something and ask a question. She moved her hand parallel to the caiman's head and about 6 inches away. The caiman struck sideways and was able to grab her hand. The woman reacted by retracting her hand, which resulted in the tearing of the skin and subcutaneous tissues. The result of the bite was eight internal stitches, 6 external stitches, a damaged nerve running to the index finger, permanent scarring and approximately $US600 in medical treatment."
Still want a crocodilian for a pet?
Perhaps you think a crocodilian can be tamed? Think again. Most people expect that regular handling will reduce their aggressive reptile into a placid lapdog, but they come away disappointed. While some species can become more tolerant than others, this often requires many years of hard work, and most realise that crocodilians are hands-off captives in the best interests of the crocodilian and the owner.
By now, you should be in no doubt that crocodilians do not make good pets for the majority of people. However, with suitable experience, the right equipment, enough space and money to set up an appropriate enclosure, plenty of determination and the right attitude, crocodilians can be very rewarding to keep - just as long as you know what to expect. For most people reading this manual, only a small handful of species would be considered suitable for captivity.
3.1.2 How old do you have to be to keep a crocodilian?
This will be tough for some readers to accept, but it is good advice: crocodilians are not for kids. Often those who are most enthusiastic about keeping crocodilians tend to be younger, typically still in their teens. However, given the general unsuitability of crocodilians as "pets" and the experience required to keep them, it is strongly recommended that you are in stable financial position, have longterm facilities available, are physically capable of dealing with very strong and boisterous reptiles, and that you have several years of experience with larger reptiles. Yes it's true, anyone can keep a hatchling alligator or crocodile easily. But they don't stay that way for long. Most teenagers live in times of great change, and their ability to keep a crocodile now may not be the same in a few years. Think very carefully about your future plans, otherwise you will have several feet of very large reptile to try and get rid of when nobody wants it.
3.2 Which crocodilian species make the best captives?
For many years the spectacled caiman, Caiman crocodilus, has been the most popular crocodilian found in the pet trade. This has recently changed with the increased availability of better alternative species, and changes in the law that restrict ownership of Caiman crocodilus in the US.
Dwarf caimans (Paleosuchus spp.) have taken over as the most popular species on account of their easy availability and small adult sizes. The African dwarf crocodile, Osteolaemus tetraspis, is also attracting more attention due to its size, although in temperament it is only for experienced keepers. American alligators, Alligator mississippiensis, remain widely available but their suitability is questionable due to their very large adult sizes. Without doubt, accommodation is the number one problem with keeping crocodilians in captivity and hence dictates which species are better than others.
A brief discussion of the most common species available in captivity follows. Despite their differences, most species have very similar requirements in captivity after their size and growth rates have been accounted for.
American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis)
This species is the most critically endangered of all crocodilians in the wild, found only in a very restricted area in eastern China. However, the Anhui Research Centre of Chinese Alligator Reproduction has been successfully captive breeding the species for many years, and it's likely that more individuals will become available through legal trade. The Chinese alligator is thought to be one of the best species for captivity, males growing to an average adult size of 2.0 metres (6.5 feet). It's body is comparable to Osteolaemus tetraspis, yet with a very long tail. Chinese alligators are, like their American cousins, relatively docile and can become fairly tame and easy to handle with a lot of work. Unlike other species, the hatchlings are also relatively calm and do not become stressed so easily.
Spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus & subspecies)
This species is otherwise known as the common caiman, and in this respect they are true to their name. They are widely distributed throughout Central and South America in a variety of habitats due to their adaptability and more generalist nature. They are also commonly available in the pet trade, and are probably the most popular crocodilian species kept by private individuals. However, they are perhaps not the best captives. Adult males can grow from 2 to 2.5 metres (6.5 to 8 feet) in total length in 10 to 15 years and they have a reputation for being particularly aggressive. Hatchlings are generally very shy and will spend at lot of time at first hiding from view, although they soon become bolder and more aggressive. It is much harder to end up with a tame spectacled caiman, and most adults become quite difficult to handle.
Yacare caiman / Jacaré (Caiman yacare)
Yacare caimans (or Jacaré) are found in South America and are sometimes available to buy as captives. In appearance, they are similar to Caiman crocodilus (of which they were thought to be a subspecies until a few years ago) although with a heavier head and more colourful markings with bold black slashes on the lower jaw. Adult males can grow to at least 2.5 metres (8 feet) and sometimes approach 3.0 metres (10 feet). As hatchlings, they are generally less shy than Caiman crocodilus and slightly preferable for captivity if you have the room to house them correctly. Caiman yacare juveniles and subadults are noticeably vocal particularly at night.
Cuvier's dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus)
This species is regarded as the smallest of all the crocodilian species, reaching an adult size of only 1.5 to 1.6 metres (5 feet). It has a fairly wide distribution in South America although it is still harder to find in the pet trade. Some other species of caimans are farmed for their skins, but Paleosuchus has a hide which is virtually worthless for skinning and is therefore not farmed for this purpose. Given its small adult size, this species would seem to be preferred for captivity. However, it is a secretive species which does not usually want to be seen. In the wild, adults have been reported to spend most of the day in burrows and come out at night to travel overland to their foraging grounds. However, Medem's work from the 1950s suggests that most Paleosuchus seem well-equipped to deal with fast moving currents and he found many adults in turbid streams either singly or in pairs. They are definitely most active at night, and in captivity you'll tend not to see much activity nor have much feeding success during the day. Some keepers have found that this species thrives with less available water than other species, especially as adults. They have been reported to defaecate almost always on land, making the enclosure much easier to keep clean. Reports on their temperament vary. Medem regarded them as generally shy but aggressive if cornered, frequently fighting with other captive individuals (i.e. very territorial). Others have found that in time they will lose much of their aggressive nature, although they never really become tame.
For more information on this species and its care in captivity, see Colin Stevenson's excellent Paleosuchus Page.
Schneider's dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus trigonatus)
The other dwarf caiman species is not quite as small as Cuvier's dwarf caiman, with adult males reaching anything between 1.7 and 2.3 metres (5.5 to 7.5 feet) or longer. This species also comes from South America and is less commonly encountered for sale than P. palpebrosus. Its requirements are similar to P. palpebrosus but it is generally thought of as being far more aggressive.
African dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis)
Dwarf crocodiles are found in West and West-central Africa, and are one of the least known crocodilians in the wild. Adult males reach 1.7 to 1.9 metres (5.6 to 6.2 feet), although it seems that some individuals (males) are restricted to even smaller sizes. There are two subspecies (at least) and this may explain differences in temperament, appearance and maximum size. They have a similar ecology to the dwarf caimans of South America, being primarily nocturnal and spending much of their time during the day in burrows or under tree roots. Hatchlings tend to be exceptional at climbing, so ensure that your enclosure is escape proof! Opinion about this species' temperament varies: whilst many believe this to be one of the more docile species, others have found adults to be extremely aggressive and territorial animals which do not get on well with other crocodilians - being quite capable of killing animals larger than themselves. In the wild, this species feeds on prey such as crustaceans and molluscs (plus fish and amphibians), and they have very broad and powerful crushing jaws more like a caiman or alligator which are capable of inflicting a very serious bite. Despite their smaller size, some owners caution others about this species because of its potentially aggressive nature - in other words, don't be fooled by a crocodilian simply because it reaches a smaller adult size. However, much of an adult's nature can also be influenced by the way it is raised.
Other crocodilian species may be available legally for purchase in captivity, and this will vary depending on the country you live in. In Australia, for example, both the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) and Johnston's crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) can be purchased with appropriate documentation. However, always find out more about the species you intend to buy before making the purchase. Saltwater crocodiles, for example, are one of the most aggressive of all crocodilian species and have a maximum size exceeding 6 metres (18 to 19 feet) which makes them totally unsuitable for just about anyone outside of a zoological park or a crocodile farm. Just because a species is available to buy, that does not mean it is suitable as a pet or even suitable for captivity period. Pet stores and private individuals will, and often do, try and sell anything to someone they consider gullible enough.
3.3 Are there laws against keeping crocodilians?
Yes there are, and there can be several to consider. Firstly, all crocodilian species are listed under either Appendix I or Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna). Species listed under Appendix I are severely restricted in international trade because they are usually (but not always) endangered or critically threatened in the wild - CITES is a trade agreement, not a firm declaration of a species' conservation status. However, only captive bred specimens of Appendix I animals (which are therefore considered in the same context as Appendix II animals) may be available in some cases. Appendix II animals, which encompass most crocodilian species including caimans, can be traded between countries with the possession of the appropriate export and import permits. Once within a county, CITES no longer applies for trade within that country. CITES import and export permits are no longer necessary for trade between the member states of the European Community.
What about hybrids? It is true that some species will hybridize with others, and this is something they do in the wild as well as in captivity. In the pet trade, some people believe that hybrids are exempt from CITES classification, or that they are classified as CITES Appendix III and can be more easily traded. This is not true! Hybrids take on the CITES classification of the most endangered parent. Breeding an Appendix I Philippine crocodile with an Appendix II mugger crocodile (if such a thing were possible) would give you an Appendix I hybrid. This is only relevant to international trade, however. Laws within countries may or may not recognise hybrids.
Crocodilians such as caimans are often classed as "dangerous reptiles" for fairly obvious reasons, although the legality of keeping a crocodilian depends upon the country or the state in question. For example, in the UK it is illegal to keep a crocodilian in captivity unless you have an appropriate permit. Such permits can be obtained, but first it is necessary to prove to the local council that you are capable of keeping such an animal. You must have suitable accommodation that is both escape proof and secure, you must be experienced in handling the animal, and you must have a thorough grasp of its husbandry requirements. You're then required to pay a fee for a permit that must be renewed each year pending successful examination of your animals by a qualified vet. In the US, the situation is more complex. In some states, for example, it is illegal to sell crocodilians, but it is legal to keep them. In others, they are classified as dangerous animals and require a special permit to keep them. In some cases, city and/or county statutes prohibiting the keeping of crocodilians supersede any state regulations. The difficulty of getting a permit depends on the state. California, for example, does everything it can to discourage anyone from keeping a crocodilian. Some states are more relaxed, but the situation in these states may well change in the near future as controls on keeping reptiles (particularly those perceived as being dangerous) are tightened. The best solution is to check with your local authority on the laws concerning the purchase and housing of any crocodilian species. A list of contacts is presented in Appendix II. US citizens may also wish to consult the book entitled "A Field Guide to Reptiles and the Law" by John P. Levell.
Remember that if you do not have the appropriate permits that your country or state demands, whether you are interested in trade or captive husbandry, you are breaking the law. The hassle of obtaining a permit is nothing compared with the hassle if you're found without one. In the US, possession of a crocodilian without appropriate permits may range from a class 1 misdemeanour in some states (punishable by a maximum of 1 year in jail and a US$2500 fine) to a class 4 misdemeanour in others (punishable by a US$100 fine). Regardless of the punishment, the animal is confiscated and normally destroyed. Also, most veterinarians will refuse to deal with you unless you can present the appropriate permits.
3.4 Is it possible to tame a caiman or other crocodilian?
In theory yes, it is possible to tame a crocodilian. However, it is exceedingly difficult, and most animals will only become moderately calm at best. Many people have tried to tame their animal, with limited success. The only crocodilians that I've seen which would be described as "tame" had been handled every single day of their lives for extended periods of time. Even then, the animal is still capable of inflicting a serious bite, and the feeding reflex of a crocodile can be very difficult to inhibit. Individual temperament varies a lot between animals, and some are certainly calmer than others. Some species also tend to be more docile than others, but all are capable of giving you a nasty bite when they're in no mood to be approached. Never buy any crocodilian on the pretence that you will be able to tame it - disappointment will probably be the most likely outcome, with only bite scars to remind you of your attempts.
The Number One Rule when dealing with any crocodilian is to never drop your guard and completely trust the animal. Always be aware of what it is capable of, and respect both its bite and its speed.
3.5 Are crocodilians capable of learning?
Yes, crocodilians can learn very well. You won't be able to train them to fetch your slippers, but given time they can recognise individual people and react to them in a positive or negative manner. They can learn events, such as what leads up to feeding time, or enclosure cleaning time. Be aware, however, that this can work against you if you're not careful. For example, if you feed your animal the same way day after day it will learn the routine and know when to expect food to appear. If you accidentally duplicate parts of this routine when you clean the enclosure, the animal may think it's about to be fed - and getting bitten by an over-enthusiastic caiman is a very likely possibility.
In the wild, crocodilians display a wide range of social and sometimes even cooperative behaviours. The creature regarding you from behind the glass is smarter than you think.