Thanks to Roald Dahl and numerous wildlife documentaries, it’s generally accepted that crocodiles aren’t the fussiest of eaters.
But in the UK’s only crocodile zoo, set up by British croc obsessive Shaun Foggett a decade ago, the lunch options are surprisingly gourmet, and include a feathered quail.
The only issue is that the (deceased) bird is attached to a clamp usually used by street sweepers, which I’m holding. I dangle the quail over the edge of the enclosure from my vantage point 5ft up and watch the reptiles eyeing me with a look of malevolence and patience.
One of the creatures at Crocodiles Of The World, which operates out of a converted former warehouse in Brize Norton, Oxfordshire
One leaps out of the water at dizzying speed and snatches it with its jaws, sounding like somebody slamming a barn door. Crocodiles Of The World, where I am having a VIP keeper experience, operates out of a converted former warehouse in Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. It houses a cafe, playground and more than 150 crocs, along with alligators and caimans, many of which have been rescued from private collections where they had been mistreated.
‘There’s no doubt that a human is legitimate prey for a crocodile,’ says Terry Miles, an ice hockey player turned crocodile expert who works at the Cotswolds zoo, as I begin throwing quails into the peckish predators’ mouths.
‘Though I promise you that they’re surprisingly sensitive creatures,’ he adds. Along with sharks, crocodiles are the most feared, and perhaps the most misunderstood, animal on Earth.
I watch, astonished, as Terry calls out the names of Hugo and Rebecca, two Siamese crocodiles who are nearly 10ft in length from tooth to tail.
Crocodiles Of The World is home to more than 150 crocs, along with alligators and caimans, many of which have been rescued from private collections where they had been mistreated. Pictured is one of the crocs at the zoo
During a VIP keeper experience, visitors get to feed the animals at the zoo, pictured, and observe their regular weigh-in and measuring
Incredibly, they both respond to their names and move towards Terry, who is safely standing on the other side of a wall. Terry then commands Rebecca to mount a rock by shouting her name. When she obeys he throws her a huge dead rat as her reward. ‘You wouldn’t want to get any closer than this to these two,’ says Terry. ‘There’s only one type of croc that is safe to handle.’
That’s one more type of crocodile than I was expecting. But then again, before today I’d never heard of the friendly Tomistoma.
‘These guys are the Buddhists of the crocodile world,’ Terry explains. ‘They are fantastic ambassadors for the species.’
Compared to Nile, saltwater, Siamese and every other type of croc or gator out there, a young Tomistoma is remarkably placid and, incredibly, can be safely handled up to a certain size and age. My terror gives way to curiosity as Eyeball, a 4ft-long Tomistoma, is carefully laid on the lab floor in the back of the zoo for his regular weigh-in and measuring — another part of the VIP experience that most visitors never see.
The Daily Mail’s Rob Crossan, who took part in the VIP keeper experience at the zoo, says it was ‘one of the most thrilling animal encounters I’ve ever had’
Crocodiles here aren’t sedated, nor do they have their mouths taped shut. Instead, Terry holds Eyeball firmly by the base of the tail with one hand, and by the neck with the other. Eyeball gives a little wriggle then relaxes in his arms.
‘Do you want to hold him?’ asks Terry. Not really, but it would be rude not to…
Eyeball’s scales are dry, leathery and hard. Holding him is one of the most thrilling animal encounters I’ve ever had.
I then place the reptile gently back in his box before he is returned to his enclosure. I touch my hands and arms just to reassure myself that they’re all still intact, and silently thank Eyeball for his co-operation.
More importantly, I vow to view crocodiles with respect rather than fear from now on. And, just in case, I should always carry a quail about my person.