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Interview with a Crocodile Handler

Copyright © Bradley Ford“Wanted: Crocodile handler, no experience necessary, will train. Must be comfortable working in enclosed places with large predaceous reptiles.” Could you imagine reading that in the employment available section of the want ads? Could you imagine applying for such a position?

In this part of Australia you can occasionally read such an ad. There are two different companies in the Cairns that have people on their payroll who work with crocodiles on a regular basis. I spoke with David Leyden, head curator at Hartley’s Creek Crocodile Farm about the operation that he oversees.

David told me that Hartleys’ Creek raises hundreds of crocodiles. They care for some 40 breeding pairs of estuarine crocodiles, each of whom is big enough to attack and kill a cow, (or something smaller, like a person.) These breeding pairs are the foundation for two of the company’s main sources of revenue.

The female of each breeding pair lays eggs every year during the wet season, in a large mound of soil and vegetation that will serve as an incubator for the eggs. In the wild the female monitors the incubation of the eggs, and protects them from predators. At Hartleys’ Creek the eggs are taken from the nest within 24 hours of their being laid, and placed in an incubator. This ensures a better hatching rate than possible in the actual nest. The incubation serves another purpose, as the temperature of egg incubation, both in nature and in the lab, determines the gender of the offspring. In the case of the farm, a temperature is selected to produce a higher proportion of male young, which grow to a marketable size more quickly than females. The young are farmed; raised as a legal and sustainable supply of meat and leather. Crocodile meat can be found on many restaurant menus in the area.

The least temperamental of the breeding crocodiles are also exhibited in the Farm’s wildlife park, where visitors can see them safely from a close distance and learn about the biology and ecology of these unique animals.

However, the safe distance doesn’t apply to the trainers, who get right in the enclosure with these reptiles to encourage them to come out and be more visible to visitors. I know if I was a large crocodile seeing some nicely-sized prey item jump in my pen I would be encouraged!

I saw David do one of these presentations at the park. Armed with a microphone/headset, a bucket full of chicken pieces, and a very chewed looking rope, he confidently stepped into the pen. About two minutes prior to David’s entrance, the crocodile, named Yard, surfaced from the bottom of the pond. Crocodiles are ambush hunters, and in the wild recognize patterns of behavior of their prey, enabling them to station themselves in the right place for a successful ambush. This crocodile was no different, having learned that at 11:00am and 3:00pm someone shows up in his enclosure.

While explaining about the biology and behavior of crocodiles, the crocodile and David maneuvered about the pen. I would like to think that the croc was stalking the contents of the bucket, and had learned that it would be fed. Part of me wondered if the animal was stalking something else: David. David moved carefully kept his distance from the reptile, and did a very good job of stating the case for these interesting animals. The rope seemed to be used to distract the reptile, as when thrown near the animal he snapped it right up and gave it a tug (taste?)

Nearly hunted to extinction for their skins early this century, thCopyright © Bradley Forde populations of these animals have recovered to their previous levels in most parts of Australia. David explained that the animals are totally protected in the wild, and wildlife biologists monitor their populations closely.

Locally things are not going so well for crocodiles, populations have not recovered. David explained: “It is difficult to balance the recovery of crocodiles in areas near humans. This section of coastline is the largest area of overlap of human populations and prime crocodile habitat. In this area all but small crocodiles are removed from the wild, to protect humans.” While David agrees with the need to protect humans, he worries about the effect of the absence of crocodiles will have on local ecosystems. “Crocodiles are an important part of local ecosystems, other organisms depend on their presence, and the ecosystems are not as balanced without them present.. David is also concerned about the false sense of security such a removal program may give the public. “Crocodiles are very mobile animals, and can migrate up and down the coast. Humans always need to be careful in this area, for a croc could have recently moved into an area.

David began his career at Hartley’s Creek working with crocodiles, after working for 8 1/2 years at the Melbourne Zoo. As head curator, he is responsible for the care of all animals in the park, as well as the training and supervision of his staff. David explained how his newly hired staff is trained. “Training someone takes at least 18 months, and they start working with the smallest animals, crocodiles are just a foot long at hatching. As they get more familiar and comfortable they move up to larger and larger animals.” “Ultimately the person has to be comfortable in the pen with the large crocs, and I have to be comfortable with them being in there.”

David tells me that the temperament of the large crocs varies. “Charlie is one of our stars, pointing at a 13-foot reptile basking the edge of a pond. He is easy to work with, has been here for years, and puts on a good show. Charles, on the other hand, is totally the opposite; all he wants to do is attack you, even if you are on the other side of the fence. Charles is still valuable as a breeder, but we will never put someone in the enclosure with him.”

Anticipating my question about the origin of any openings they have, David went on to explain that the few opening they have for wildlife keepers are the result of people moving or retiring, and that they have a perfect safety record during his tenure there as curator. “While it may seem like it is not a very attractive position, the last time we advertised locally for an opening we had, we had 81 applicants, so don’t even think about applying.”

Those of you interested in visiting Hartley’s Creek Crocodile Farm can find it 40 km north of Cairns on the Cook Highway. Crocodile show times are 11:00am and 3:00pm. Admission is AUD$18 for adults, AUD$9 for children. The company also runs a transport system, and will transfer you to and from your Port Douglas, Cairns, or Northern Beaches Lodging. You can find you more about the farm at www.crocodileadventures.com.

Our Other Crocodile Pages:

About Australia's Crocodiles
Being safe in Croc Country
An Interview with a Croc Bite Victim

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