Many years ago, I pointed to the pictures of Thai crocodile and American alligator wrestlers with their heads inside gaping toothy jaws and asked incredulously, “Surely those animals are trained, aren't they?” Rom thought they just intimidated the animals enough so they wouldn't bite during the show. The accepted wisdom then was: crocs can be tamed but not trained.
In Irian Jaya (Indonesia), Rom had seen a New Guinea fresh-water croc that lived in a wooden house on stilts. From the time it had been a mere hatchling, it had grown to five feet in length alongside children, people and dogs. On cool rainy nights, it lay by the fire warming itself along with the community members.
Ralf Sommerlad, who was the Director of the Madras Crocodile Bank briefly in mid-2008, recalled seeing a gardener with his pet caiman (a kind of South American crocodile) in Frankfurt, Germany. When the man knelt down, it would rub against his head and shoulders much like a puppy wanting to be petted.
Ralf initiated a programme to start training the reptiles at the Madras Crocodile Bank. Soham Mukherjee, the Assistant Curator, developed the idea into an increasingly fun (for both people and crocs) and fascinating programme, much to our amazement. He began with a young six-year-old American alligator.
Ally had been handled as a baby, but since she had grown, the practice had been abandoned. She still remembered her name, though, and that provided a good starting point. Every time she obeyed a command, she was rewarded with a little piece of meat; it was no different than training a dog, albeit a long, scaly one!
A week later, while training Ally, Soham noticed a mugger in the background correctly responding to his commands! The croc had been watching and learning without the aid of any treats! Pintu promptly joined the programme too, and, over time, others enrolled.
Training began every afternoon at 3 and about 10 minutes ahead of time, the six pupils waited with anticipation at the edge of the pool, alert to the faintest sound of Soham's voice. Once he arrived, their excitement was palpable. The croc students knew in which order they would be called, and awaited their turn patiently! And, they were just like my dogs, knowing the sequence so well that they pre-empt the commands, so Soham had to mix them up. The crocodilian pupils have even learned when the weekly holiday from training falls!
Like Pintu, the other crocs paid full attention to their trainer and learnt by example. Soon, an assortment of crocs of different species were attending the Croc School such as Komodo and Thai — the Siamese crocs, Mick — the salt-water croc and Abu — the Nile croc. Eventually, even older animals such as Rambo, an adult mugger joined the programme, and demonstrated that age is no barrier to learning new tricks. But the spoilt favourite, Ally, is the star pupil who knows 12 commands such as come, water, stay, up, sit, turn, open your mouth.
Once, when Ally was half-way up the training ramp, Soham asked her to “jump”. As you can imagine, it is difficult to jump on an incline, but she did not want to pass up the chance of earning a treat either. So, instead, she raised herself on her toes and lay down flat on her stomach, miming a slow-motion jump without leaving the ground! Pretty amazing when you consider that Ally's brain is about half the size of a walnut!
Today, 30 crocodiles of 11 different species from eight months young to 40 years old are in various stages of training. Currently, the renamed Reptile School also includes caiman lizards and Aldabra tortoises among its pupils. Snakes, monitor lizards and turtles are on the waiting list, and, apparently, in strict adherence to Government regulations, there is no capitation fee for admission!