While the sale of crocodilians in the pet trade is illegal in some places, pet specialty retailers that are not subject to such bans should be aware of the species that make for fantastic pets for capable owners.
Here in California, private ownership of all crocodilians has been illegal since the late 1970s—a law enacted only a few years after my tenure in the business began. Our Department of Fish and Game actually came to us at the time looking for our endorsement of a plan to outlaw spectacled caimans (Caiman crocodilus). We were all for it.
Those of us of a certain age will have vivid memories of ads in the back of comic books for baby alligators. Some of you might have even sent away for one. The problem was, they weren’t alligators. They were spectacled caimans. There are three subdivisions of the order Crocodilia: true crocodiles, gharials, and alligators. The alligators are further subdivided into alligators, caimans and dwarf caimans.
I had a spectacled caiman as a boy. My mother had rescued Sir Roger from another family and gave him to me when I was eight years old. It was not a great decision on her part. Spectacled caimans seem sweet as babies, but as they grow, they become nearly impossible to tame—although I’d like to think my persistent and valiant efforts had a little bit of payoff. I could actually hold him, even when he was nearing three feet in length. However, I was spending an enormous amount of time catching fish for him, and as he grew, he was clearly getting more and more testy. He soon found a home at a local zoo, where I would often visit him and 30 or so of his kin, imagining I could actually pick him out amongst the crowd.
So, when agents approached us back in the 1970s, we were more than happy to endorse the ban. I have always felt that promoting difficult animals as pets serves our business no good in the long run, and there really is no upside to keeping spectacled caimans. Little did we know that, when the bill came to fruition, it would be for a ban on the entire order Crocodilia. Such is the way the political system works.
A shame, really, because there are members of the order that can, in fact—given the right owner—be perfectly reasonable as pets. What’s more, these animals are commercially bred and pose no threat on native populations. To be clear: I am not saying that they make good pets for children or that everyone is suited to keeping them. They are specialized, and need a caring and dedicated keeper, but there certainly are people in the private sector capable of working with them who currently cannot legally do so.
American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) would seem to be one such candidate. Despite their size, they are easily tamed and seem to maintain laconic personalities throughout their lives. However, their size does present a long-term problem. Males have the capability of getting well over 12 feet. Frankly, even a cow is a creature of a size as to be potentially problematic both in terms of potential danger and physical needs for caging and feeding. As pet dealers, I feel that it would be irresponsible on our part to promote an animal that would require such difficult logistics.
But did you notice my mention above of dwarf caimans? There are two species (Paleosuchus palpebrosus and trigonatus), both commonly called smooth-fronted caimans due to the lack of the ridge between the eyes that gives the spectacled caiman its name. Neither get larger than some of the bigger commonly kept Monitor lizards. What is more, they tame down easily and stay that way. They are attractive creatures, and of course they are the kind of pet that tends to inspire keepers to build beautiful enclosures. Crocodilians have a great cachet of mystery about them—at once lazily dreamy yet brooding and calculating. They are the cats of the reptile world.
There is no doubt that even these animals do not fall within the purview of casual ownership. All crocodilians are semi-aquatic, needing adequate room to swim and submerge, and a dry area upon which they can bask. They require tropical temperatures, which can be expensive to maintain in such a large enclosure.
They are carnivores of the first order, happily taking our usual herp fare of rats and chickens. There are commercial croc chow kibbles on the market, and they can be a fine supplemental food. As with freshwater turtles, a diet of fish fillets is not recommended for two reasons. Firstly, a gutted fillet eliminates many of the nutritional components that can be found in guts and organs, leading to a dietary imbalance. (Similarly, supermarket chickens and chicken pieces are a bad idea.) Secondly, most available fillets come from marine fish, which, over time, will result in an overabundance of sodium that freshwater denizens can’t handle.
Should you decide to work with any of the crocodilians, your first step should be to determine the legality of keeping them. You need to talk to your state department of fish, game and wildlife, but also follow through with county and local ordinances. I know that may sound obvious, but finding out after the fact that you aren’t supposed to have them will be a black mark on your reputation that could cost you to painful levels.
Again, it is the rare customer that can maintain and give a good life to a crocodilian. Those potential customers can be found through across-the-counter conversation. I am not suggesting—as I have in this column with so many creatures—that you keep a stock of these animals on hand. I especially don’t recommend you carry spectacled caimans, despite their relative inexpensiveness and inarguable cuteness. However, if your state, county and other local ordinances allow for it, you should also not shy away from discovering that rare client who wants, and can humanely keep, something like a smooth-fronted caiman. It can be a fun adventure for the client, the croc and you.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.