Clicker trained crocodiles
Last month at the Bronx Zoo in New York, Melissa Nelson, who is curator of all things behavioral, took me to see what’s been accomplished by the reptile keepers.
They have four species of crocodiles, and all are clicker trained. The keepers use a Frisbee, attached to a long pole, for the target. Lowering it over the top of an enclosure, they can move a crocodile from land to water and back. They can lead it from one display area to another, or into a chute, so the veterinary staff can inspect and medicate the animal without having to tie up its jaws and immobilize its powerful tail with ropes (crocodiles hate that).
Crocodiles are more mobile than alligators. The keepers show me a Cuban crocodile, a species that can jump into the air and snatch birds and small mammals from low branches (keepers are careful never to hang their hands over the back wall). I watch that animal stand up on her legs and actually run to her target, like a horse.
But what totally blows me away is a social event. Melissa and I are standing in the public area, watching some Indian crocodiles, called Gharials, through the glass. A huge male slides into the water and glides over beneath us. The Gharial doesn’t have a flat head like a gator, but a long thin snout. This male has handfuls of long sharp teeth sticking out crookedly at the back and front of his long laws, and a glittering slit-pupilled reptilian eye. It is an extraordinarily sinister-looking animal. He holds his head out of the water and looks up, fixing his eye on Melissa, who, to my amazement, is chatting to him: “What a beautiful boy, how are you today?” etc. The Gharial watches her.
“He knows you!” I exclaim. “Yes, he does,” she says. “Isn’t he wonderful?”
“But do you train him yourself? Do you ever feed him?” I ask. No, never. The keepers do that. So why is he interested in Melissa?
That slitty gold eye moves to my eyes, briefly—who are you, anyway?—and then comes back to rest on Melissa’s smiling face. Animals are often sensitive to human relationships, and can identify higher-status individuals. Still, a crocodile? How would he know? Why would he care? But the Gharial knows. And the Gharial, one alpha animal to another, is saying good morning to the boss.
Clicker training means a lot to these crocodiles. People aren’t nearly as scary as they used to be, they don’t catch you and tie you up and drag you around any longer, they show you how to get good treats, and they are actually interesting. It means a lot to the keepers, too. Some people are reptile lovers from birth, and working with these animals is a lifelong dream, but they dare not dream of having an actual relationship, knowing the feelings of the animals they are caring for, bringing out their best. Now they can. Now they do, daily. What a great job. Thanks, Melissa. Click!