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Want a ‘Pet’ Croc? Here’s Why It’s Not a Good Idea

If the idea of sharing a living space with a dinosaur-like crocodilian terrifies you, this will not be an article pertaining to you. If, however, you are like myself and completely taken aback by the intelligent, ancient reptilian relics we call the crocodilians; you may want to read on before considering owning one yourself. In this article I will attempt to review the reasons why keeping a crocodilian (even the smallest species) is an enormous commitment which I strongly urge against for a vast majority of potential reptile owners. I will provide an overview explaining why even experienced, well-meaning reptile handlers should avoid keeping crocodilians as pets.

(Photo reference of croc image at top of post: Biologapiainuese. Paleosuchus palpebrosus. Digital image. Www.Flickr.com. N.p., 12 Jan. 2008. Web. 27 Dec. 2013)

The most obvious constraint associated with croc care is the often gigantic size that adults are capable of reaching; Nile crocodiles(Crocodylus niloticus) and Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are capable of reaching up to 20 feet in length and weighing in at up to one ton! By contrast, one of the most popular pet crocs is the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) which still gets huge in adulthood; reaching between 9-15 feet and weighing up to 1000 pounds! For this reason alone, I don’t think I need to focus on why keeping an American Alligator or Nile/Saltwater Crocodile is probably not a good idea; if stretched out, full grown adult males wouldn’t even fit in the average persons bedroom, certainly not in mine! Because I expect most sensible people to have ruled out the larger crocs by now; I will focus on why keeping the readily available dwarf caimans, the smallest members of the Reptilian Order Crocodilia, is still not an option for an overwhelming majority of responsible reptile owners.

While I am the first to admit that I understand the appeal of owning these absolutely gorgeous animals that are strangely reminiscent of dinosaurs; there are many reasons why doing so should be avoided by all except the most dedicated and experienced of reptile experts with ready access to a large room dedicated to properly housing one of these guys. Before I get into the cons of croc ownership, I will provide a brief overview of crocodilian biology.

Crocodilian’s have an extremely ancient evolutionary lineage which predates the emergence of the dinosaurs. The first croc like reptiles appeared in the late Triassic Period, some 225 million years ago (though modern groups aren’t found in fossil beds dating older than approximately 80-85 million years ago during the Cretaceous period). Crocs are highly adaptable animals whose amphibious lifestyles and extraordinary ability to withstand long periods without food helped them survive the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs some 65.5 million years ago; when an asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico had a long-lasting and devastating impact, killing over 75% of animals living at the time, including the dinosaurs. While major extinction events are devastating to the animals unable to adapt to the changing conditions, this extinction event allowed for a massive radiation of the mammals, as well as the crocodilians, to a lesser degree.

image3 Want a Pet Croc? Heres Why Its Not a Good Idea
Photo Reference: Rabinal. How to tell a crocodile from an alligator. Digital image. Www.Flickr.com. N.p., 20 June 2009. Web. 27 Dec. 2013.

The Order Crocodilia is divided into 3 families: Alligatoridae (alligators and caimans), Gavialidae (single species; highly threatened and fish-eating gharials of India), and Crocodylidae (the crocodiles). Caimans are found exclusively in Central and South America and are closely related to alligators; both alligators and caimans belong to the crocodilian family Alligatoridae, which is divided into two subfamilies Alligatorinae (the alligators) and Caimaninae (the caimans).  The primary differences in these groups of crocodilians lies within the structure of their snout and the morphology of their jaws/teeth. Crocodiles have a ‘C’ shaped jaw when open; while the alligators have a more ‘V’ shaped mandibular fossa.

image8 Want a Pet Croc? Heres Why Its Not a Good Idea
Photo Reference: Hoeft, Jeffery. Gharial. Digital image. Www.Flickr.com. N.p., 20 Dec. 2008. Web. 27 Dec. 2013.

The gharial is more crocodile-like; however, the males have a bulbous growth at the end of their snout which allows them to make a hissing noise which is apparently used in communication and sexual selection. The Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) are the smallest of the crocs; although smaller size is not associated with all caimans. Some species such as the Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) are known to reach a comparable size to that of the previously mentioned American Alligator, some adults have been known to exceed 14 feet in length and weigh over 650 pounds!

Because of their relatively small size, dwarf caimans have become popular pets in the reptile trade; thus they will be the focus of the rest of this article. There are two distinct species of dwarf caiman, the Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) and the Schneider’s Smooth Fronted Caiman (Paleosuchus trigonatus). They are native to the neotropical forests of South America, and have a rather large native range. Unlike most other crocodilians, the dwarf caimans are largely nocturnal. They tend to spend a larger percentage of their time on land than do the other crocs, and are generally found in densely forested regions near rivers where they will seek refuge in fallen trees and/or rock piles. The Schneider’s smooth fronted caimans are also commonly found in seasonally flooded, savannah-like niches in South America.

Dwarf Caiman’s have a somewhat shortened rostrum, and have a reduced number of premaxillary teeth; dwarfs have 4 while most other caimans have 5. As is typical of crocodilians, male caimans are larger. Males typically reach about 5 feet and weigh about 15 lbs, and females reach about 3.5-4 feet and weigh about 13 pounds.  Dwarf caimans also have more osteoderms, which are bony plate-like projections of skin, than other crocodilians.

image4 Want a Pet Croc? Heres Why Its Not a Good Idea
Photo Reference: McKenna, Joe, and thepaperchef. Caiman Mother and Babies. Digital image. Www.Flickr.com. N.p., 20 June 2009. Web. 27 Dec. 2013.

Dwarf caimans mate at the end of the dry season, and engage in a complex array of vocal behaviors associated with mate selection. They generally breed only once a year and do so in shallow water. Females typically cease eating before they lay a clutch of about 10-15 eggs, which will hatch after an incubation period of approximately 3 months. Parental care varies in dwarf caimans based on the region they are native to. Females may stay with and guard her hatchlings for a few weeks, and there have been observations of the mother leading her hatchlings to the water at the time of dispersal. Males have no role in rearing of the hatchlings, though they may help build and guard the females nest prior to the hatching of the eggs. Sexual maturity is associated with the caimans size and is not generally reached by males or females until at least 8 years; though it could take as long as 15.

image5 Want a Pet Croc? Heres Why Its Not a Good Idea
Photo Reference: Hakonsen, Thor. Paleosuchus palpebrosus. Digital image. Www.flickr.com. N.p., 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Dec. 2013.

As one might imagine, the eggs and hatchlings (which look much like miniature adults) are highly vulnerable to predation by snakes, birds, jaguars, coatimundi, opossums and others. For this reason, parents are highly aggressive when guarding nests or hatchlings. Despite their small size and reclusive nature, dwarf caimans play an enormous role in their ecosystem by keeping populations of fish and small mammals in check. They are highly adaptable and most of their native regions have flourishing populations. While some humans will hunt and eat them, dwarf caimans are excellent at hiding, primarily active at night and don’t offer much meat, even in adulthood; for this reason, they are not a particularly common species sought out by human hunters.

Perhaps the most unique and interesting feature of dwarf caimans is their complex system of communication and social behavior. Although they are often found living solitary lifestyles; they may be found in pairs or small groups in which a social hierarchy system is observed. The larger and more aggressive the caiman, the higher its rank in its social group. Dominant, solitary males will guard prime territories and fight off males encroaching on their land, which provides them access to food and mates. Typically, the better the ‘real estate’ for a crocodilian, the bigger and meaner you’d expect the dominant male to be. The communication systems are extremely complex and the mother will often begin communicating with her young before they’ve even hatched! Their communicative systems incorporate sounds, postures, hormone dictated smells, and touching to express their intent to other dwarf caimans. During the mating season, males may expel air out of their nostrils to create a grunt-like sound.

image6 Want a Pet Croc? Heres Why Its Not a Good Idea
Photo Reference: Coutinhobr. Paleosuchus palpebrosus. Digital image. Www.Flickr.com. N.p., 4 Nov. 2010. Web. 27 Dec. 2013

Dwarf caimans are nocturnal hunters which feed on fish, small mammals, reptiles (including smaller caimans), amphibians, snails and crabs. Prey is swallowed whole or broken into large pieces which are then swallowed whole. This is because the way the jaw articulates doesn’t allow for mastication, or side to side chewing as seen in many mammals. As with other crocs, the muscles used to open the mouth aren’t particularly strong; thus their mouths can be held shut without much of a struggle. However, the pressure with which they are capable of biting down is quite extraordinary due to the large size of their jowls packed with masseter musculature. In fact, the saltwater crocodile has the most powerful bite in the animal kingdom; with 3,700 pounds per square inch of pressure exerted! Crocodilians have the most acidic stomach enzymes of any vertebrate animal on record; which aids in digestion of bones, shells and other hard to digest materials associated with eating prey whole. Dwarf caimans have unique eating habits which will often incorporate gastroliths in their digestive tract. Gastroliths are rocks which are swallowed and stored in the gizzard to aid in the grinding of the crocodilian’s prey.

image7 Want a Pet Croc? Heres Why Its Not a Good Idea
Now that I’ve reviewed a bit about their biology and behavior, let’s discuss why dwarf caimans aren’t suitable pets for a vast majority of reptile enthusiasts. Above is a photo of myself and a 3.5 year old male Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman. This particular caiman was fortunate to have been living with one of the very small minority of people qualified and dedicated enough to provide a crocodilian a rich and humane life in captivity. In this circumstance, the owner is an animal expert with many years of university and field exposure to large, potentially dangerous reptiles. While I felt pleased to have met this amazing creature in person, especially considering the conditions under which he is being kept and the herpetological knowledge/experience of his handler; I immediately developed a deeper understanding of what it would take for an individual to provide such an animal a suitable life in captivity. While the intentions of perspective crocodilian owners may be great; the reality is that very few people are suited to provide the level of care and space that adult crocodilians demand.

I have broken the reasons that crocodilians don’t make great pets down into 5 categories:

1) Size and Enclosure Requirements:
Let’s assume someone does have both the knowledge and experience with reptiles required of responsible, perspective crocodilian owners; owning a crocodilian is still entirely out of the question unless you can also provide the
space they will require; not only as hatchlings, but also as adults. The suggested minimum size of an enclosure for an 4.5-5ft adult dwarf caiman is roughly 15 feet in length by 8 feet in width; with approximately 1/2 water and 1/2 land. With dwarf caimans, some owners will do a 60/40 ratio of land to water because of the amount of time they tend to spend on land, but regardless, the caiman will need a large body of water to comfortably swim in. Most recommend a minimum water volume of 1 cubic meter, or approximately 265 gallons. The aquatic half will need very powerful filtration as crocodilians are notoriously messy animals. Powerful, effective filtration systems for large bodies of water are far from cheap. Additionally, you would likely run into problems with environmental enhancement; crocodilians will often uproot plants and other decorative accents either by digging, smacking with their powerful tail or even using their mouth to manipulate their environment. Dwarf caimans often dig burrows in the wild, so this seemingly destructive behavior would certainly not be unexpected of them. This can be frustrating and can significantly increase the amount of weekly maintenance.
You would also need a powerful source of UVA/UVB light available for the crocodile to bask in during the day. Having a consistent and naturalistic light cycle with UVA and UVB rays is of critical importance when housing crocodilians and other reptiles. UVA light aids in feeding, digestion, social/reproductive behaviors, and proper activity levels; while UVB light is responsible for regulating the synthesis of vitamin D3 in a reptiles skin. Without vitamin D3, a reptile would be unable to process and absorb the calcium in its diet, which can lead to a number of health concerns, including metabolic bone disease. UVB spectrum lighting also promotes the healthy development of organs and immune system. The lighting would also be quite costly for a large caiman enclosure; most UVB lights drastically decrease in effectiveness after between 8-10 months of use, and require frequent replacing.

2) Costs:
While the dwarf caiman itself is often sold as a hatchling for around $200-$400 US dollars; the housing, feeding and veterinary expenses are sure to cost several thousands of dollars throughout the extremely long life span of a dwarf caiman (which have been known to live up to 60 in captivity). Are you prepared to take on a life long commitment to a potentially aggressive animal requiring a significant amount of time, room and money to thrive in captivity? Cost for a hatchling and it’s initial enclosure may be less than 1 thousand, if you’re lucky; but you’d have to expect to spend several times that amount in future months/years on veterinary care, expansion of the enclosure, and nutritional food sources.

3) Powerful Bite:
Remember that the title of the most powerful bite in the animal kingdom belongs to a crocodilian; and while the dwarf caiman is a fraction of the size of a saltwater crocodile, they are still deceivingly powerful animals capable of inflicting a serious wound on inexperienced reptile handlers. Only highly experienced reptile handlers (or those learning under the direct supervision of professionals) should physically approach or handle a crocodilian. Regardless of ones experience level, handling should be done minimally as crocodilians are often easily agitated and stressed by handling. Caimans should be fed using tongs or a similar device to distance the handler from the crocodilian during feeding. As I alluded to earlier, crocodilians are highly intelligent reptiles, and can be target trained to make feeding/moving them more manageable. However, to see their cognitive abilities at work, you do NOT need to buy one. There are plenty of related videos on YouTube and many zoological facilities will show the feeding of their crocodilians to the public if you find out what time they are fed before planning your trip.

4) Captive Diet and Nutritional Requirements:
The captive caiman diet should include small invertebrates, fish and varied, appropriately sized frozen/thawed birds and rodents. An adult caimans appetite can be quite voracious, and whole frozen rodents/birds can be expensive if not purchased in bulk. A large part of the crocodilians diet should consist of whole animals to ensure that the caiman can attain the necessary calcium from the prey animals bones. The diet should not be based on just fish, or on chunks of meat/flesh; while those can be supplemental items, the diet should be primarily whole rodents or birds. Feeding live birds or mammals is, as always, NOT recommended; as doing so in captivity frequently increases aggression, exaggerates feeding responses and endangers the handler and reptile alike. The diet will also need to be supplemented with a specialized vitamin/mineral mixture with calcium at least once a week to make up for possible gaps in nutrition.

5) Legal Implications:
Can you legally own a crocodilian where you live? Are you willing to accept legal accountability of the crocodilian if it bites someone? The legalities associated with crocodilian ownership vary from one state to another; some states have no regulations regarding the ownership of crocodilians; some allow only smaller species; others require permits; and still others have total bans on private crocodilian ownership. These laws vary not only by state, but also by county. Just because you live in a state that doesn’t prohibit private crocodilian ownership doesn’t mean your county has no such prohibitions! An enormous amount of legal information ought to be considered by all perspective crocodilian owners; especially those without a long history of handling and caring for large, dangerous reptiles.

In conclusion, as nice as it would be if dwarf caimans stayed hatchling-sized and remained manageable; it’s simply not the case. Dwarf caimans and other crocodilians get much bigger than most other reptiles kept as pets, and thus require significantly larger enclosures than just about any other animal you’ll find in the exotic reptile trade. They can be dangerous, difficult to predict, aggressive, messy and very expensive/demanding animals to house responsibly. For these reasons, I urge perspective crocodilian owners in the states where dwarf caiman hatchlings are frequently seen in exotic reptile shops to steer clear unless they can realistically expect to provide the level of expert care AND the space these animals will require in adulthood.

The sad truth is that a majority of baby caiman owners will give them up (or, worse yet, release them into the wild) once they outgrow their aquarium environment. Larger, juvenile caimans are much more difficult to find homes for than hatchlings, and it can be almost impossible to find a responsible, qualified individual or organization willing to rescue a larger crocodilian from a previous owner who can no longer meet the needs of the growing reptile. Most aquariums and zoos will not take such animals, and very few people are both willing and qualified to rehome an unwanted adult crocodilian.

Fortunately, the public popularity demanded by these prehistoric monsters means that crocodilians are generally at just about every accredited zoo and aquarium you’ll find. There are often volunteer opportunities at accredited zoos and aquariums which will provide you with a much deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, crocodilians – without giving into the urge to have one at home.

Material References:

Choi, Heiry. “Paleosuchus Palpebrosus Dwarf Caiman, Cuvier’s Smooth Fronted Caiman.” Ed. Phil Meyers and David Armitage. Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, n.d. Web. 27 Dec. 2013.

Stevenson, Colin. “Captive Care.” Paleosuchus Page – Main Page. Http://crocodilian.com, 2009. Web. 27 Dec. 2013.

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