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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

After a while, crocodiles

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

In 1973, two very special creatures had just arrived at Woodland Park Zoo. The pair of dwarf crocodiles were just 5 years old when they settled into what would become their swampy Seattle home. The calm, cool and ever-chill crocodiles became iconic residents of the Day Exhibit, greeting visitors with their toothy grins for over 44 years.

The unmistakably toothy grin of a dwarf croc. Photo by Kirsten Pisto, Woodland Park Zoo.

If you were one of those visitors, you might recall them basking under the heat lamp in their grotto or catching a treat or two during Sunday feedings. But more than likely what you remember is a feeling of Zen. Simply being in their presence often inspired visitors to slow down and relax.

Now, at 49 years old, the pair has embarked on a new adventure, retiring where many Americans choose to spend their golden years: sunny Florida.

While we may have shed a few tears at the thought of them leaving (not crocodile tears, mind you), we are confident that their new home at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is the perfect spot for these amazing crocs to spend the rest of their lives.

In honor of their big move, let’s look back at their time in Seattle, see what it takes to move two crocodiles across the country, and catch up on how they’re doing in their new digs.

Home sweet swamp

With lots of crocodile smiles (a crocodile can go through about 3,000 teeth in its lifetime), sharing of snacks (mice, rats, chicks and quail), and a love language all their own (the male lets out a really low growl, typically with his throat submerged in the water, causing the water to vibrate vigorously while water droplets begin to dance on the surface), our pair of dwarf crocs have been inseparable. The crocodiles have produced 14 babies and their offspring have moved to zoos as far away as South Africa.

Our beautiful girl. You may remember that the female dwarf croc is significantly smaller than the male. At 40 pounds, she is almost a quarter of our 175 pound male. Photo by Dennis Dow, Woodland Park Zoo.

Our handsome dude.  The male is actually pretty big, even for a dwarf croc. At 6.3 feet long (average male is 4-5 feet) he is easy to tell apart from the female. Photo by Dennis Dow, Woodland Park Zoo.

The crocodiles have always been standouts among the zoo's herpetology residents. Jenny Pramuk, PhD, an animal curator and expert in reptiles and amphibians at Woodland Park Zoo, credits their unusually calm demeanor for inspiring many guests to adopt an especially compassionate perspective. Reptiles are often mischaracterized as having “reptile brains,” but in fact crocodiles are very smart animals. Here at Woodland Park Zoo, the two crocs have participated in a target training enrichment program for almost seven years. Keepers can ask the crocodiles to touch a target (in this case a long stick with a rubber ball on the end) and are then rewarded with a treat (usually a mouse). Jenny says our male croc is a little more food-motivated, so he really has the training down!

This type of training and enrichment is especially important for geriatric animals. At 49 years old, our pair is definitely in their golden years. As far as we know, there are only a few dwarf crocodiles older than this pair. “Just like humans, aging animals experience more aches and pains the older they get, so it’s especially important to be able to perform health checks without disrupting their routine.” Pramuk explains, “One major accomplishment is being able to work closely with these reptiles and give them the best possible animal health care we can. Their calm, relaxed demeanor is somewhat unusual for crocodilians, so we feel especially lucky to have been able to work with these two.”

Keepers were able to ask the crocs to move to specific areas of their exhibit for husbandry and cleaning access. They were also able to walk them onto a scale and even able to voluntarily examine and apply medications to the male when he had a tail injury. Lead Keeper Alyssa Borek remembers, "My first impression was how relaxed the keepers were when entering their enclosure. I had worked with much more aggressive, active species (such as Cuban crocodiles that are able to jump out of the water!) before coming here. I never imagined any crocodilian to be as mellow as this pair.  It has been a pleasure working with them."

Basking in the cozy grotto at the edge of the pool, our pair of crocs lived in the Day Exhibit at WPZ for over 44 years. Photo by Kirsten Pisto, Woodland Park Zoo.

Lead Keeper Diane Yoshimi has worked with this pair of dwarf crocs for over 20 years. She remembers watching their babies hatch! She says, "I first started working with the dwarf crocodiles in the early 1980s. At that time, they lived in the turtle grotto with yellow-spotted side necked turtles, mata matas, a red-eared slider, a giant hill turtle, a green crested basilisk and finches that would fly from grotto to grotto. It made for a lively but geographically inaccurate exhibit." The crocodiles were moved into a separate grotto in 1988 following a small renovation. Diane also recalls working alongside the late Dana Payne, a fellow herper and passionate zookeeper who would later become reptile curator. Diane remembers Dana's enthusiasm for the species and just how much he loved the crocs. 

Dana Payne presents one of the juvenile dwarf croc offspring during an educational program. Photo from the Woodland Park Zoo archives.

Like most of the 24 species of crocodiles, both dwarf crocodile subspecies are endangered due to overhunting, persecution and habitat alteration. “They’ve been fantastic ambassador animals for their species for over 44 years; keeper talks, educational programming and visits with zoo donors have all been enriched by their presence,” says Pramuk. “We’re really going to miss them.” 


An unexpected event

You may be asking then, why are we sending these crocodiles across the country? In mid December 2016, the zoo’s Night Exhibit caught fire. The crocodiles lived in the zoo’s Day and Night Exhibit building where the fire caused significant structural damage, including holes in the roof and collapsed internal structures.

Because of our training and practice throughout the year, every team member was well prepared and organized, which allowed for an immediate emergency response. As smoke began to enter the spaces where many of the zoo’s reptiles and amphibians made their home, the animals were quickly evacuated. Keepers waded into the crocodile pool, in the dark, and were able to lift the pair to safety. Even as all of this commotion was going on, our crocodiles were as calm as ever. They waited patiently in the back of a warm van while keepers drove them to their temporary space at the Animal Health Complex.

The pair hanging out in their temporary holding at the Animal Health Complex after the fire. A crocodile by any other name? Nope, our dwarf crocs may have earned some nicknames by visitors, but officially they have remained nameless for all these years. When you are as cool as our crocs, you don't need names! Photo by Alyssa Borek, Woodland Park Zoo.

About 182 animals—reptiles, amphibians, and a couple of mammals—were safely rescued from the fire and relocated to other animal buildings on zoo grounds. The animals remain off public view except for a reticulated python which shares an exhibit with an Indian python in Trail of Vines.

Since December 16, the crocodiles had been living together in the Animal Health Complex, with access to a small pool, special attention from our staff, and daily visits (and extra treats) from their keepers. While we worked to determine the next steps for all of the animals that made their home in the now empty Day Exhibit, we decided that because of their age and size, it was best that we find a more permanent housing solution for the dwarf crocodiles.

Because there is still much uncertainty about the extent of damage, the zoo has been focused on identifying interim housing for the displaced animals. “The welfare of these animals remains our priority. While the rescued animals continue to do well in temporary housing on zoo grounds, the crocodiles require a large pool for optimal animal welfare,” says Pramuk. “Many croc fans will be disappointed they’ll no longer be able to see these amazing reptiles here, but we’re so grateful to St. Augustine Alligator Farm who kindly offered them a new home. St. Augustine Alligator Farm has high caliber staff and is one of the best zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums in North America that is home to reptiles. We’ll miss these crocodiles very much but we know they’ll be in excellent hands.”

"I’ll miss sitting in the office and listening to them vocalize, which they always did right before closing making it difficult to ask visitors to exit," says Yoshimi. "I used to tell visitors that since crocodiles have extremely long lives, I would one day be an elderly zoo visitor and look down at the same crocodiles from my wheelchair. I am very sorry to see them leave WPZ but am thankful that we were able to find a good home for them in Florida where they can live outside in the warm climate."


Like Boca Raton, but even better

The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is an AZA-accredited zoological park with a mission for education and conservation. It is also the only facility in the world housing all 24 currently recognized species of crocodilian. In short, we are thrilled that St. Augustine was able to take our pair of dwarf crocs and give them a peaceful, state-of-the-art retirement. Our crocs are going to “the luxury resort of crocodiles,” says Pramuk. With facilities that include heated floors, warm bathing pools and sunny outdoor spaces, our crocodiles are going to retire in style, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo by Angela Daidone, via Flagler College Gargoyle

"I am sad to see them go, but given the circumstances, I think that St. Augustine Alligator farm is an amazing place for them" adds Borek. "They are renowned for their work with crocodiles, and even host the AZA Crocodilian Care and Biology training workshops every year. The crocs will live outdoors with natural sunlight and will benefit greatly from this! Florida is not a bad place for a crocodile to retire to!"


First class crocs settle in Florida

The crocodiles traveled by way of Delta Airlines last Wednesday in temperature-controlled cargo and in specialized travel crates. Being the calm creatures that they are, curator Jenny Pramuk says the trip went smoothly. The crocs were loaded into their travel crates at the zoo and then driven straight to Delta's cargo loading for a speedy departure. Their dedicated keepers escorted them all the way to the gate. While they would have preferred an in-flight meal, Delta doesn’t have mice on the menu. After a four-hour layover in Atlanta, they arrived safely in Florida. 

First class crocs! Clockwise from top right: the crates arrive from Florida, the crocodiles are placed in their travel crates, keepers eat crocodile cupcakes and say their goodbyes, the crocodiles arrive at Delta cargo for the flight to Florida. Photos by Kirsten Pisto, Alyssa Borek and Diane Yoshimi, Woodland Park Zoo.

Life in St. Augustine

After a quick health check-up, the crocodiles were welcomed to their new home by the staff at St. Augustine.

They've arrived! The staff at St. Augustine welcome the pair to Florida. Pictured here is the male. Photo courtesy of St. Augustine Alligator Farm.
A quick blood draw for animal health records. Photo courtesy of St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Jim Darlington, curator of reptiles at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, says the crocodiles will live together in an outdoor grotto complete with crocodile comforts. Their temporary enclosure features flowing artesian well water that leads to a comfortable pool for two and plenty of sand for basking in Florida’s warm sunshine. “Future plans have this impressive pair moving to their very own larger habitat where visitors can experience our newest crocodiles. At the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, this pair will proudly represent its ancient species in the only complete collection of all 24 species of living crocodilians to be viewable by the public,” says Darlington. In their new home, the pair will remain together but separated from other crocodiles, since they are used to living on their own. 

Already exploring the grounds in holding after exiting the travel crate. Photo courtesy of St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Update on the Day and Night Exhibits

Both buildings remain unsafe to access and the Seattle Fire Investigation Unit has not been able to determine the cause of the fire. The zoo continues to be involved in numerous inspections, evaluation efforts, and conversations with fire, city and insurance personnel. The damage is being assessed, including the structure and mechanical and electrical systems. Re-occupation of the Day Exhibit side of the building will depend on damage assessment to the entire building and strategies to replace all of the utilities.

Since the rescued animals were relocated to other buildings at the zoo, Pramuk reports that some animals have been busy breeding and reproducing. Among the new offspring are: 50 tiger-legged monkey frogs—a first-time breeding at the zoo for this species; four shield-tailed agamas (lizards found in Somalia and Ethiopia); 12 axolotls (Mexican salamanders); five Burmese vine snakes; and two Asian yellow-margined box turtle eggs expected to hatch in March.

We will keep the community updated with any news about the Day and Night Exhibits as soon as we know more. If you have any special memories, photos or art inspired by our dwarf crocodiles, we would love to see them. You can share them online by tagging #woodlandparkzoocrocs or you can send them directly to zooinfo@zoo.org and we will be sure to share them with the Day Exhibit team who gave our crocs 44 years of awesome animal care.If you’d like, you can also donate directly to amphibian and reptile care, by visiting https://www.zoo.org/donate, and designating “Reptile and Amphibian Care.”

Dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis) are found in the tropical rivers and swamps of sub-Saharan West Africa and West Central Africa. They thrive in swamps and rain forest rivers, but have also been found in savanna flood zones where they soak up the extra moisture during the wet season, and dig burrows in heavy mud to aestivate during the subsequent dry season. Like most of the 24 species of crocodiles, both dwarf crocodile subspecies are endangered due to over hunting, persecution and habitat deconstruction.  Photo by Mat Hayward, Woodland Park Zoo.

Very special thanks to Jenny, Diane, Alyssa and Peter for taking extra special care of our crocodiles and safely sending them off to their new home.



1 comment:

  1. Sorry to see them go. Happy they ended up going to St, Augustine Alligator Farm. I have been there twice through the years. Alligator Farm is crocodilian heaven! Not only is this wonderful for them, it crazy pants. An even crazier that I get to comment first about this move. That's wildlife for ya, wonderfully amazing. Live all my friends.

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