Case study: Crocodilian exhibits

Case study: Crocodilian exhibits

It is acknowledged that reptiles experience negative emotional states, can suffer, and there is growing evidence that reptiles are far more intellectually and socially complex than previously thought. In fact, new findings about the rich intellectual, emotional and social lives of reptiles surface every year.

30% of Sea Life aquariums house four species of crocodile – Yacare caiman (Caiman yacare), Cuban crocodile, African dwarf crocodile, and Cuvier’s dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus). None of these crocodile are suited to life in captivity – the Cuvier’s dwarf caiman is secretive, especially during the day, shy, yet aggressive if cornered, and frequently fights with other captive animals; the Yacare caiman requires a great deal of space and can be dangerous to handle; the African dwarf crocodile is extremely aggressive, territorial and not at all social (younger specimens are excellent climbers and can also easily escape from exhibits); the Cuban crocodile is a small but aggressive species of crocodile which is a strong swimmer, also adept at walking, jumping, and noted for terrestrial abilities. Even the smallest species, the African crocodile, can grow up to six foot in length.

The two African dwarf crocodiles observed at Great Yarmouth Sea Life (‘Ntombi’ and ‘Masozi’) are eleven years old and arrived at the centre in 2010. On Sea Life’s own website, it states ‘African Dwarf Crocodiles are powerful swimmers’, yet the animals are provided only a small, shallow pool to submerge in. The fear, aggression and stress that captivity brings to these individuals has been highlighted in media reports during 2010  and 2014. They currently live in a small, acrylic/glass exhibit featuring a shallow pool around three foot deep located at the front of the exhibit, rocks, foliage and wooden steps. This small, restrictive exhibit would not enable animals to have their own, secure territory, yet this is a territorial species. There is no provision of sheltered, privacy areas for the animals to hide from view of the visitors. Visitors were observed banging on the acrylic/glass and using flash photography.

At Weymouth Sea Life, the Yacare caiman exhibit is furnished with a small pool, barely deep enough for the animals to submerge in, concrete substrate and foliage. There is a wider grassy area but no obvious provision of shelter for the animals. These animals can grow up to three metres and require a much larger water area to swim in, for example. Aside from an under-stimulating and overly-restrictive environment, there is a ‘Crocodile Creek’ train ride running adjacent to the exhibit for visitors. Weymouth Sea Life also supposedly housed five caiman crocodiles in 2010, donated by the Gerald Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust at Jersey Zoo.

Croc spaceAt London Sea Life, a Cuban crocodile is housed in a grossly undersized, restrictive, uniform exhibit which is acrylic/glass fronted and features a small pool, rocks, sand substrate, and foliage. According to Sea Life staff, there were previously two crocodiles in the exhibit; however the current crocodile “did not let the other one settle” and so one of the animals was moved. There appears to be only one light and heat source in the exhibit, yet most reptiles are ectothermic, meaning their body temperature is dictated by the ambient temperature of their environment and thus they need to live in a wide range of temperatures in captivity. The Cuban crocodile would naturally inhabit freshwater swampland and bask in the sun. It is a strong swimmer and has toes that are short and lack webbing, indicative of a species that spends more time on land compared with most other crocodilian species. It is noted for its terrestrial abilities. During the ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ tour, London Sea Life staff informed visitors that Cuban crocodiles can “run particularly fast” yet the running possibilities in the aquarium exhibit are extremely limited. The pool is also not large enough for the animal to swim more than three body lengths.

The exhibit does not allow natural movement and behaviours, such as running, swimming and foraging. Neither does it provide a space where the animal could feel secure – a space that is sufficient enough to avoid violating the animal’s fight or flight response. Overall it is a wholly unsuitable environment for this animal that fails to provide for even the most basic welfare requirements, and this could lead to suffering.

At Hunstanton Sea Life, three Cuvier’s dwarf caiman are housed in an emersion exhibit where visitors can ‘immerse’ themselves into the centre of the exhibit behind a spherical acrylic/glass window. Not only is this an intrusion of the animals’ home, it also encourages visitors to take photographs of group members in the exhibit. Visitors were documented using flash photography. Again, the exhibit is furnished with rocks, foliage and a pool that is grossly undersized. The Cuvier’s dwarf caiman is a freshwater species found in forested riverine habitats and areas of flooded forest around lakes. It is able to travel large distances overland at night and sub-adult individuals have sometimes been found in isolated, temporary pools. There is a complete absence of crevices, burrows, caves or foliage at Sea Life for these shy animals to retreat from visitors (and each other). The exhibit appears to be a relatively uniform thermal environment, with only one light/heat area.

Reptiles have evolved to inhabit a diverse range of marine, freshwater aquatic, terrestrial, subterranean and arboreal habitats. Most captive situations cannot replicate in any meaningful way the space, complexity and environmental conditions experienced by reptiles in nature. Crocodilians are large, active, powerful, often territorial reptiles which are unsuited for captivity. They are adapted for both terrestrial and aquatic travel, and are highly evolved and intelligent.

The captive management needs of reptiles are varied and complex. Some of the housing and environmental factors that must be addressed include, but are not limited to: the amount of space provided, the quality of that space, heat, light, hygiene, and nutrition. None of the exhibits at Sea Life completely fulfil the animals’ needs, which can cause many of the common diseases that lead to the ultimate demise of many so-called ‘exotic’ animals in captivity.

This case study is an excerpt from the 2014 report An Investigation into the UK’s Largest Public Aquarium Chain.Please click HERE to access the full text (including references)

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