A torrid soap opera love affair is unfolding at Paignton Zoo.
The passion and drama is brewing in the suitably-steamy environs of Crocodile Swamp, home to two squabbling crocs named Mork and Mindy.
Mike Bungard, Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates, said: “Before they came here they were together at Chester Zoo, but they have been separated for a time, so it’s like starting again.” Staff were concerned about mixing the two, as the last time they met they had a nasty fight.
These beasties can grow to three metres in length, have up to 68 razor-sharp teeth and powerful tails, so a lovers’ tiff can be quite something. To complicate matters, the pair are rare Philippine crocodiles - there are only 200 left in the world.
Mike Bungard said: “Mixing crocs can be perilous – they can occasionally take lumps out of each other, though that is just their way of working out who is boss. Rarely, one animal can be killed. It’s worrying when you are working with such endangered species.”
So how do you go about introducing two bad-tempered crocs?
Staff put plenty of items such as logs in the enclosure to break up the animals’ line of site and prepared an area of neutral territory where there would be no conflict over heat spots or other features.
Keepers armed themselves with kickboards – familiar to many a livestock farmer – but they also needed some rather more heavy-duty equipment, such as animal restraint harnesses, a long, hooked pole and puncture-resistant gauntlets, as well as the traditional tool of the zoo keeper – the broom.
Mr Bungard added: “If things start to go wrong during a mix the keepers have to split the animals up – divert their attention, use the boards and harnesses to get one animal out.
"Crocodiles fight to establish dominance or territory - which is linked to resources like food and warmth. Reactions vary depending on the circumstances. Their initial meeting at Chester Zoo was very fraught, so this was a case of fingers crossed for us.
“When it came to it, we put the vets on call and hoped for the best, but despite our concerns, it went as smoothly as you could imagine. They just chased each other for a short while, then it all dissipated. It was a great relief!”
Sadly, the “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” drama has continued since then. The pair had to be separated again after just a couple of months.
Mork has now moved out, but Mike hopes it’s not a case of irreconcilable differences – in fact he hopes that the pair will breed. “We’ll try again in the New Year. It is really important that these two animals get on, as they represent 1% of the entire world population of this species.”
With so few animals left, the breeding of zoo animals is absolutely critical. The species is managed by an international programme run by the Filipino government and coordinated by International Conservation Partnerships, Zoos Victoria, Australia.