Last Monday I visited a crocodile sanctuary in Queensland’s far north. Or so I thought. I should say at the outset of this post that I have a conflicted attitude towards zoos at the best of times. I find it hard to reconcile their important role in conserving rare breeds with the ways in which captive animals are turned into a spectacle. Of course, the zoos of today are very different from the caged enclosures of my childhood, and I am lucky in that I live close to a well-run zoo in which the animals seem happy and well cared for. Nevertheless, going to the zoo remains an emotional experience for me and, as the parent of a young child who wants to learn about wildlife, I find myself visiting them more frequently than I would otherwise.
Mesmeric, terrifying and sublimely majestic, crocodiles are the exemplar of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. With their extraordinary power, their great stealth and their clear link back to the prehistoric, these merciless predators are living reminders of how little control we are able to exercise over the natural world. Crocodiles can clear beaches and render rivers no-go areas and, as the Australian ecofeminist Val Plumwood reminds us, human beings are their ‘major prey species’.
For anyone working in ecocritical studies in Australia, the slightest reference to a crocodile is deeply resonant, immediately recalling Plumwood’s famous and near-fatal encounter in the Kakadu Wetlands. Plumwood’s account moves between the crocodile’s great beauty to the total abject terror of being caught in a death roll:
Few of those who have experienced the crocodile’s death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror. The crocodile’s breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim’s resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive. The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs. I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll.
What is clear from Plumwood’s analysis of her experience is her sense of her own position in food chain and her deep respect for the creature that so nearly took her life. While the rangers who eventually found her were eager to shoot a crocodile (any crocodile, it would seem) in an act of vengeance, Plumwood protested vehemently against any form of counter attack. For her, what took place in the Kakadu National Park was a ‘humbling and cautionary tale about our relationship with the earth, about the need to acknowledge our own animality and ecological vulnerability’. It was a reminder that we are not the only predators on earth and that what we perceive as our exquisitely civilized behavior is simply a mask for the fact that we are pieces of meat, just like other animals.
Plumwood’s haunting account echoed in my mind as we arrived at the crocodile sanctuary. I’ve seen captive Nile crocodiles in the past and have been amazed by their strength and the grace with which they move through the water. Having never seen a fully-grown saltwater crocodile, I was intrigued by what lay ahead. However, it turned out that the sanctuary was only one part of the story and where I had expected to feel awe-inflected horror at the majesty of individual beasts, what I found was mostly abjection.
Crocodile farming took off in Australia in the 1960s and 70s, partly in a bid to combat poaching, which had seriously depleted numbers in the wild. While marketed as a sanctuary, the park that we visited on Monday is also a commercial crocodile farm, where the animals are bred primarily to satisfy the European luxury goods market’s demand for skins. The argument is that farming has saved the crocodile from extinction and that reserves in the wild have recovered as a consequence of the industrialization of the process. The reality for many of the crocodiles living in Australia today is bleak and raises questions about continuity of a species versus the quality of its life, which are certainly not specific to crocodile farming.
The farm I—accidentally—visited is divided into two halves. One part is a wildlife park, where about twenty crocodiles swim in a large artificial lagoon. Some of these creatures are almost ninety years old and the largest are almost five metres long. Tourists cruise along the water in boats, while rangers demonstrate crocodilian might by dangling chicken carcasses for which the giant predators repeatedly and impressively snap.
The other half of the enterprise is a farm. Here, crocodiles are kept in concrete enclosures until they reach a particular length, at which point they are transferred to large tanks. In the wild, crocodiles are fairly solitary creatures, but in farming situations they are clustered together, with some of the larger-scale operations housing as many as thirty thousand reptiles at any one time.
As small children gently stroked the belly of a very young crocodile, the tour guide explained that in two or three years the very skin that they were patting would be exported and would fetch multiple thousands of dollars. In the wild crocodiles can live for as long as a century, but a farmed crocodile is unlikely to live beyond four years. Hearing the guide speak with great affection of some of the older crocodiles housed in the sanctuary, I asked, ‘don’t you ever become attached to any of them?’ ‘Yes’, she responded, ‘those on the other side definitely have character and we all have our favourites. Here…we know not to become attached’.
While the guide spoke with great animation and passion of the creatures swimming around the lagoon, her coping strategy when speaking of the farmed crocodiles was to refer to them as ‘products’, even though these significantly younger animals were of exactly the same species. This labelling is an important part of what Plumwood (following Carol Adams) has termed a ‘radical disassociation’ (Environmental Culture, 157) which allows us to turn a living, breathing creature into a commodity. On one side of the park were crocodiles, while on the other there were leather goods and this distinction legitimized the difference in the treatment meted out to the animals. By seeing the crocodiles as what they will become, rather than what they are now, their keepers are able to preserve a form of emotional distance. It is, after all, difficult to feel compassion for a pair of shoes.
As an outsider (and a vegetarian), I was struck by the segregation at play in the sanctuary and the rigorous emotional control that those who work there must have to exercise. Crocodiles are dangerous creatures, but they also have an important role to play in Australian ecology. In Cairns any crocodile who is discovered is removed to a sanctuary or a farm where it can no longer pose a danger to the public, but this process is also altering the ecological balance of local waterways in ways that may not be healthy in the long-term.
Plumwood is very helpful in attempting to think all of this through in that she points to our discomfort at the prospect of being another creature’s prey, thus undermining our sense of ‘mastery’ over the world. The crocodile thus becomes a ‘public danger’ or a pest and, as Deborah Bird Rose has noted, ‘Many thoughtful persons have noted that once an animal is declared “pest”, or “vermin”, or even “invasive”, something happens within the sensibilities of many humans.’* It is, then, a short journey from ‘pest’ to ‘product’, albeit one that requires the suppression and manipulation of a wide range of emotional responses.
I don’t love crocodiles, but I’m happy to admire them—and the idea of them—from afar. What Monday’s excursion reminded me is just how easy it is to suppress emotional reactions and how doing so can lead—often unwittingly—to cruelty and exploitation.
* Deborah Bird Rose has written brilliantly—using the work of Emmanuel Levinas—on the boundaries between the human and the animal and how they are manipulated when compassion is inexpedient. See, in particular, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (2011). See http://deborahbirdrose.com/ for more on this.