Friday, February 11, 2011


It took a really long time to write this chapter. I guess it’s not easy to summarize a two and a half year long episode! Plus I’ve now moved to Bangalore, and The Gerry Martin Project keeps me busy. BTW, some fantastic experiences and projects coming up later this year! :)

I hope you enjoy this chapter as much as I enjoyed the croc time!  

I keep on mentioning how I had no clue about training crocodiles before I was introduced to this concept. And now, I don’t miss an opportunity to promote croc training as one of the most efficient tools to manage these magnificent animals in captivity, and provide the best behavioral enrichment at the same time. These are in fact the two most important aspects that are taken in to consideration; management and enrichment. Of course education is another very important component that is often clubbed with croc training, something similar to the croc enrichment shows at the Madras Crocodile Bank.

Demonstrating 'desensitization' during an enrichment show.
Photo by Akanksha Mukherjee.
I am so glad that I was introduced to croc training from the enrichment point of view first (not to forget to thank Ralf Sommerlad again for that!). This gave me a super advantage. Something I didn’t realize in the beginning. In simple words, my job then was to ‘entertain’ the crocs. And it did take some time to figure “how the hell do I entertain them?

I remember what Ralf told me in the early days.

“If they are coming out of their safe hide (usually water) for a tiny piece of meat that is not worth the energy spent or the risk taken (as per croc logic), that my friend, is a good enrichment.”

I was so totally stunned when I noticed that happen for the first time. I keep giving example of this big male Mugger ‘Rambo’, who would come all the way from the other end of the opposite bank to ‘open his mouth’ and ‘jump’; all for three, tiny, one inch sized meat chunks!

'Rambo' - one of the largest male Muggers  performing an "open your mouth" command.
Photo by Ralf Sommerlad.
The idea of developing and running enrichment programs is to keep them mentally and physically engaged. At no point of time should they be getting bored of it. If you see any such signs, you’ve gotta improvise. And yes, that was the advantage! I had to make sure that the crocs don’t get bored of the same thing over and over again. This was actually not so difficult; cuz I get bored very easily! All I’d do is keep myself entertained. The moment I felt the routine was getting rather monotonous, I’d say to myself “If I’m not enjoying this, they obviously aren’t”.  I always kept my interest as a parameter to determine when to start something new. This allowed me to expand the domain without restrictions. You know how it works. When you get bored, you do all kinds of crazy stuff with less logic and more curiosity; like a kid would blow saliva bubbles to see how big can they get before bursting!

I started diversifying commands in an attempt to enhance their problem solving capability. End result: ‘Ally’ now follows 16 commands!

"Ally" - the star
It all started with Ally (American alligator) and gradually I tried my hands on 40 individuals in all. I emphasize on the word ‘individual’. I have worked with 40 crocs of 10 species of all ages (American alligator, Mugger, Siamese croc, Nile croc, Saltwater croc, African slender-snouted croc, Dwarf croc O. tetraspis, Morelet’s croc, Spectacled caiman and Yacare caiman) and not two are same. They all have distinct personalities; they are all true individuals.

From left to right: "Johny" - Spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus), "Jaws 3" - Saltwater croc (Crocodylus porosus), and "Pintoo" - Mugger (Crocodylus palustris).
Photo by (left to right) Akanksha Mukherjee, Nariman Vazifdar, Shikha Choudhary

This offered me a huge learning platform. There are heaps of things I've learnt through croc training, and I don’t think it would have been possible otherwise. It was all the more interesting for me since I’d never read anything on croc training or how they behave and interact whilst learning. It was like discovering something for the first time! It surely was, at least for me. Truly learnt a lot, especially on the behavior front. My first training group was just perfect for this. Ten crocs of five species (American alligator, Mugger, Siamese croc, Nile croc, and Saltie). Building of the social hierarchy, inter-species interaction, communication, and competition were the highlights. They all have their specific rank, which of course changes with time (growth, hormones and brains!). Interestingly, size does not always matter! Ally was the largest and eldest and hence was dominant. The next rank was open for a long time. I always thought the next ‘big guy’ would earn the second place. Turns out NO! The super smart ‘Pintoo’ (Mugger) always bullied the larger ‘Abu’ (Nile croc), and continues to do the same till date. In fact there is a good chance he’d be the dominant croc soon.

First time readers, please read the earlier ‘croc training’ articles for the above to make sense!

Adaptability is what allows survival. That’s exactly what these crocs are doing; trying to survive in the changing environment. This makes it possible to exploit their willingness to learn new things to adapt better. Crate training, station training, and desensitizing are often used for effective management.

Selective feeding of a Saltwater croc in a moderate density enclosure.
Watch on YouTube

It is natural to compete for food, shelter and mate (We all do it! :)). All animals retain this particular instinct wherever they are; wild or captivity, unless of course they are ‘over-civilized’ like a few of us! Crocs are super competitive, fortunately. I say this because that quality helped me a lot when training 6 crocs in the same enclosure.

I mentioned in the last chapter about the launch of croc enrichment program in the Croc Bank. That evening I was chatting with Janaki after the super performance by the entire croc group. She was curious about how I trained all of them. Logically, it would take a long time and immense patience to do that. Patience yes, but surprisingly, very little time!

I was explaining to her “There is a very healthy competition in this group. They all know that at the end of a routine, they get a reward, and the more they do the more they get. Very often learning new tricks gives more treats since they do the old trick plus the new trick. They are rewarded for every initiative as part of positive reinforcement. So all I have to do is teach Ally a new trick, all the others learn just by watching her and are ready to do the same when they are called!”

That was when Janaki mentioned about ‘Rival training’ or ‘Model training’ method. She had recently read that somewhere, and that was the technique used to train the famous African grey parrot – ‘Alex’!

“Hey, the method is so similar! Wait a minute….. It is exactly the same!”

I never knew the technique I was using had a name! All I did was followed Ralf’s pointers. Basically, you train a ‘model’ to do things using positive reinforcement, and most importantly, let others see that. And because of the rivalry within the group, the others will want to compete by doing the same thing to get attention and treats. Ally, in this case was the model.

So what exactly is the driving force? ‘Survival’ sure, but what else? Not sure if you guessed it, but the word I'm hinting to is  ‘j e a l o u s y’! Yes, I’ve been called names for thinking this but that doesn’t discourage me. Crocs apparently aren’t supposed to have those emotions. Well, they weren’t supposed to learn 16 commands either!

Envying a rival is jealousy, right? But how do we know if it is what I think it is?! Let’s look at an example. After a break of about five weeks, I went in for a training session. All of them came out eagerly in the performance area. Ally seemed extremely happy. I did the regular routine with her and then asked her to go back to “water”. The others were called out after that except Thai (the female Siamese croc). Komodo (the male Siamese croc) did not perform as well as he could, so I called him out for a second time. All this time Ally was being a bad girl and kept trying to come out of water. I had to push her back a couple of times. I guess she wanted to spend some more time that day. So what’s so cool about that? Here it comes… After I finished Komodo’s routine for the second time and got out, I hear fast steps on sand. I turn around and see Ally putting up a super aggressive chase. Guess who the victim is? Yep, it is Komodo. It was strange but not strange enough. I assumed the tension will just melt down, but it was strange.

“Let’s wait for a bit and see what happens”

Scott Johnson and Elizabeth Farmer from Texas were volunteering at the time, and were armed with cameras at the moment. They did get some decent shots of the whole incident; I just wish I hadn’t misplaced that damn cd! I hope to find it soon, and will then put up the photos.

Excited Ally.
Photo by Umeed Mistry.
Back to the story: Surprisingly, the chase continued on land and then in water. Komodo rushed out of this pool and entered the other. So now there was no visual contact, and so logically, the tension should be over. But no! Ally enters the other pool looking for Komodo! The chase continues in the other pool for like a minute, before they both disappear underwater. All the other crocs in that pool looked surprised. Ally now surfaces in the northern side and Komodo somewhere south. Ally looks at others, chases everyone out except Thai! Komodo gets chased for third time now and is out and hiding in the farthest corner. Ally comes close to where I was standing in amazement, and looks straight in my eyes.. was all silent after that.

Now why would she chase all except Thai, the only one whom I didn’t call out that day? And Komodo in particular gets a double dose. I cannot come up with any other explanations but the theory of jealousy. Can you?

Ally has another very special quality, eagerness to learn more, all the time. I can always see this “me, me, me!” expression on her face. It becomes so much easy to teach her new things. Another interesting story: Andy Wakefield and Jeremy Cusack were shooting a small promotional video for Croc Bank. We were taking some shots of training, and I was explaining how awesome Ally was. Just then I thought “Just for fun, let’s try and teach her a new command in front of the camera!” The video below shows how she learnt a brand new trick in under 6 minutes!!! That is bloody awesome for a croc. I was so proud of her that day..

Ally learns a new trick in under 6 minutes! All captured in this footage.

There are so many memories with these crocs, never thought I’d get emotionally attached to them. Bonding with crocs is one of the best experiences ever... especially with one croc in particular..

Exchanging thoughts (22 October, 2010).
Photo by myself with self timer on tripod!
I will miss you Ally!



Unknown said...

The one word that you've used several times in this post is 'learn' and its derivations. Apart from all the experience, fun and bonding, I think the learning you have undergone and imparted at Croc Bank is phenomenal. I know you'll miss that time and i guess the crocs will share/exhibit a crocodilian counterpart of the same emotion. Why not, right?

Bhaumik said...

right prachee,.. i'm sure Ally had a great learning too.. she must be missing her "favorite" teacher :).. but sadly the chapter "ends" here :(

Domenic said...

You have done so much for the enrichment program and these crocs. Being able to teach these creatures tricks and commands is freaking awesome! And teaching Ally new tricks infront of a camera is way cool man, two thumbs up

Dr Bryan Grieg Fry said...

The place won't be the same without you there mate!

But I look forward to joining you on new adventures in India! :)

Hershal said...

Amazing. Hope your students keep learning & getting entertained... And you too. Best Luck !

Unknown said...

So what is the super croc doing? Take care of yourself Son.

Pranay said...

Great summary.Nice way to conclude :)
i hope you have many more such adventurous stories to share from your current and future projects!

Hatta said...

super awesomely sick!

Anonymous said...

Well... I went on this site, coz soon my best fried maybe will bring me home nile croc, fo 2 weeks. How can I interact, train an play with him, doing it SAFELY

Shweta said...

beautiful and touching.. :) I'm sure Ally misses u too.