In an isolated pond near the Maharani Chimnabai Ladies Club in Vadodara, a lone brown mugger emerges from the water at the slightest of sounds from an aluminium bucket — loaded with fish — that his keeper brings to him. Over the next few minutes, the dedicated caretaker carefully feeds the mugger with his hands, ensuring that he has swallowed the fish. A few pieces that do not go down smoothly are pushed back into the mugger’s mouth with the help of a stick. The session is over in under 20 minutes and the crocodile returns into the water.
This is not how crocodiles are usually fed, whether in captivity or not. However, for the Sayajibaug zoo, hand feeding this mugger has been the only way to ensure that he survived after having lost his upper jaw in a territorial fight, over a decade ago.
The keepers of the zoo, particularly 60-year-old Kalu Mali, have been regularly feeding the mugger from close proximity, sitting down by his side and helping him swallow — an act, which many call daredevilry.
“Since he lost his jaw, the aim was to ensure that he survives. The incident was unfortunate and we witnessed the pain he was in. Crocodiles are dangerous, but that is how nature made animals. We were guarded at first, but his response has been mellow. He has never tried to attack us. We carry a stick and sit on the periphery of the pond to feed him. The stick helps in pushing pieces down that he cannot swallow independently. We, of course, do not attempt to insert our hand in his mouth, although a bite cannot possibly take place,” said Kalu.
Zoo officials said that the accident occurred sometime in 2010, when the mugger — now aged about 25 years — shared the main crocodile enclosure with three others from his species. A territorial fight ensued between a younger crocodile and him, leaving him with grievous bite injuries and an irreparable upper snout.
Former zoo curator Dr CB Patel, who performed the surgery on the mugger, said, “The injury was a result of a territorial fight with the second male crocodile (there were four in the pond then), who was actually younger to this one. The attacker had managed to grab his jaw in a bite. He also lost a big portion of his muscles on either side of his snout, but we were able to pull the muscles together and stitch it back. The jaw, however, was broken from the joint and could not be healed. It was amputated.”
Patel said that the recovery was slow even as the authorities kept a close watch on his condition with heavy antibiotics.
Present curator Pratyush Patankar said, “It is an achievement that the crocodile has survived for over a decade after losing his upper jaw. It is because of the dedication of the keepers. The process of swallowing the fish is not an issue, as reptiles eat by swallowing and not biting. Their bite is reserved to catch the prey. Over the years, this mugger also got conditioned to being hand fed. He associates the sound of the bucket, as well as that of his keepers, with his meals.”
Patankar said that not having the upper jaw and teeth would rule out chances of the mugger injuring by bite, but that does not make it harmless. “He does have the potential to injure a person with a whip by his tail — another way of crocodiles turning offensive. However, we have not seen any aggressive behaviour from him so far. Recently, we needed to repair the boundary wall of his isolated enclosure and he remained seated peacefully with his keepers by his side, even as the petrified workers hurried with their task,” said Patankar.
Kalu retired last week, but not without training three others. He has also handled big cats and other carnivores in the zoo. “I have seen the mugger for over two decades and will keep visiting the zoo as it has been my home. I am sure the others will continue to take care of him when I am not around,” he said.
The mugger (Crocodylus palustris) is a Schedule I species under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and therefore, the Sayajibaug zoo has isolated the injured reptile for over a decade. “According to Central Zoo Authority rules, we cannot keep injured and handicapped animals on public display. They, however, are very much part of our zoo family in every other way,” remarked Patankar.
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