Monday, January 9, 2012

Showtime: Offering A Crocodile A Little Head

A young man with more courage than good sense, in my opinion

The Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo runs a live show every 60 minutes from 09:30 in the morning through the afternoon, the last one being at 20:30, I believe. You'll find an overview about the park by clicking the link above. I've been there a few times, and since it's usually been for only part of a day I've yet to see all of the place because I tend to get drawn into the small stadium where they do this particular show.

There's always a minor concern as to how animals are handled for circuses and shows such as this, but in this instance there's a chance for the reptiles to get revenge - although in truth it's most likely just natural instinctive reaction on their part. Call it the gruesome streak in me - and maybe that's true - but being the timid soul I am personally makes the vicarious thrill of possible danger a compelling draw.  Judging from the crowds the show draws I'm surrounded by plenty of company, I've noticed.

While waiting for a show one afternoon I heard a woman roar in what I guess she thought was the noise a crocodile makes when it's about to attack, and turned to see her teasing her little boy by "roaring" and clamping her hands at him, croc-style.  At first he laughed, but after taking a closer look at the size of the beasts now being roused below by a staff member his expression sobered up and she stopped.

The woman in the lower left makes a mock attack on her son

The show begins with a trumpeting musical fanfare of some sort - the Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark themes were really big for a while - punctuated by a man doing his best to whip up the crowd's enthusiasm via loudspeakers around the stadium. I'd suggest not sitting too close to one as they're fairly loud. There's usually some English involved, but most of the audience is Thai so don't expect a lot of details offered in your native tongue, if any.

Maneuvering before the show
Sometimes there's a show girl along to sweeten the pot for some watching, making exaggerated gestures with her arms like a woman showing what's behind Door Number One on a game show, but once the show starts most of the audience is paying more attention to the two men entering the area at ground level, onto an island raised perhaps a foot above the water level of the pond around it. After offering a wai of greeting to the audience as the announcer introduces them to the applause of the crowd they wade out into the pond to about calf-level and begin splashing water up onto the island stage with their hands and arms, making it not only easier to move the crocodiles around, but also for the comfort of said reptilian guests. There are also a few spray holes in the surface of the island that are turned on and off during the performance to help do the same thing.

While one is slicking up the performance area the other is scouting around for the specimens they plan to use for different parts of the show. I'm told familiarity is key for some of the tricks involved, and if you're putting yourself in grave danger predictability is probably the wiser path to choose, I suppose. These creatures have jaws with a clamping pressure of 5,000 pounds per square inch (an alligator can only manage 2,000, but I don't recommend playing with them, either).  Most of you are familiar with Rottweiler and "pit bull" dog attacks via the news; they ring in around 400Lb/Sq inch, and a human can manage slightly over 100Lb/Sq inch - just as points of reference.

At the shows I've attended they start out small and work their way up.  Maneuvering the creatures is usually done by the tail.  While the muscles of their tails closer to the body are quite powerful for swimming and striking if the body is grounded it can't pull its body around by the end of it, so pulling it backwards is the easiest - and safest - way of moving the crocodiles around.

Losing his grip on the tail a performer lands hard during a show

There's one exception to that, though, and that's if you fly backwards and end up on your back, knocking your head on the cement and losing your focus while you try to get up with your head spinning.  The crocodile can get turned around pretty quickly, and I once saw a performer nearly end his career after a near-disastrous slip and fall after losing his grip on the tail. There isn't room for one of these to get up to speed in this enclosed area, but they can go as fast on land as around seven miles per hour (10Km/hr), and while I can't speak for you that's faster than I normally move.

The first "tricks" are usually just done with a stick, such as the one held by the guy in the photo below, seeing who's reflexes are best as the guy puts the stick into the crocodile's open jaws.  As you can see by the shredded end of the stick it's somewhat of a toss-up as to who's won the most rounds.

The ante is upped when one of the performers gets a crocodile to open its mouth, kneels before it and then "charms" it with light strokes with a stick on the top side of the snout from eyes to nostrils a few times before sticking his hand and/or forearm into the open mouth. Things almost always go according to plan, and the crowd throws money down onto the island to tip the guys - usually currency folded up around a coin to give it enough heft to carry it the distance down from the stands. They pick it up to get it out of the way, thank the audience and stash it away.

Upping the ante a bit further they then proceed to do a similar stunt while putting their heads between the open, toothy jaws. Below is a clip of the performers putting on a show as one tried to get another to put his head into the crocodile's mouth.

Eventually they make it, as the guy up top today proves. If you think about it for a moment, this is an extremely nervy move.  Remember, while they have limited side-to-side movement to their "necks" and very little muscle power to open their mouths there's that bone-crushing power to snap them shut. I've taken pictures where the performer's expression is intended to be a smile but indicates a look closer to "get me the hell OUT of here!"   Here's another still shot from that same show:

They play to both sides of the arena, so for those of you who prefer an alternate view here's one from the back side:

Here you can see how far into the jaws this guy's head is

The tips come raining down on the guys after these tricks, and you'd think they'd leave well enough alone and quit while they were ahead, but no... they scoop up the money, drag in another scaled participant and, after getting it to hold it's mouth open they put some of the money into it, reaching not just inside and picking up the bills and coins from the crocodile's (immovable) tongue, but deeper down past its palatal flap - the stiff tissue that allows it to keep water out and breath through its nostrils - and that puts them far enough in that if the beast decides to clamp down on their forearm there's really nothing they can do to escape.

A crocodile's natural instinct when it's chomped down on something is to do what's known as a "death roll", which disorients their prey and allows them to drag it underwater where they can break it's bones and often drown it. I know there are clips of unfortunate performers being snapped down on out there on the web, but while I'll joke about such things with friends it's nothing I'd care to watch myself, so you're on your own finding them.

I'd say if you have an opportunity to see one of these shows, do it.  Maybe stick around and see it twice. I usually do.

With effort, a performer hoists up one of his fellow performers

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