A few days before we went to the Great Barrier Reef, we spent a day at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures in North Queensland. Alligators are my favorite animals, so I was very excited to check out their close cousins in Australia. We’d been to alligator/crocodile farms in St. Augustine, Florida, and Hot Springs, Arkansas – how would this one compare? We left the hotel nice and early so we could get there when the gates opened.
As soon as we arrived, we were able to buy our tickets, and the park employee planned out our entire day for us, marking times all over the map she gave us! We had a few minutes before our morning boat ride, during which we admired the crested cockatoos, spreading their colorful head feathers.
Then it was time for the cruise on Hartley’s Lagoon. We got on a small boat with two-foot high glass windows in the passenger area, with metal fencing above them. The captain explained that this was the only place in the world where you can ride a boat while the captain actively feeds crocodiles! It was a lot of fun and a tiny-bit nerve-wracking as the crocodiles jumped out of the water to try and reach the raw chicken parts dangling above them. Sometimes the crocs were jumping up against and/or snapping at the boat itself! What a cool way to start the day.
After the boat ride we went to the Cassorwary Garden to learn about and feed cassowaries. The Cassowary is a huge, magnificent endangered rainforest bird that cannot fly. It is the third tallest and second heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and the emu. It is believed to be related to extinct moas (from dinosaur times) and elephant birds. We were told over and over again that these birds are the most dangerous animals in the park, and yet we were able to hand feed them (with a peck or two if you weren’t careful)! I secretly love them and think they are nice birds who are just highly misunderstood. Cassowaries help hundreds of plant species out by digesting and then spreading their seeds for regeneration, so if cassowaries become extinct, it will mean extinction for many other species. If you listen carefully at the very beginning of this video, you can hear one of these guys making their cool, dinosaur-like sound.
Next up was the crocodile farm tour, which by itself sounds quite exciting, but turned out to be our least favorite part of the day. In the 1950’s, saltwater crocs were hunted to near extinction, to the point where even the hunters themselves were going to the government and telling them something needed to be done. Australia’s solution was to set up crocodile farms, where the crocs can be mated and hatched in captivity, fed well for three years, and then euthanized for their skins. This eliminates the need for hunting the crocs in the wild, and protects the wild ones out there. We learned that all crocodilians have their gender determined by the temperature of the eggs, and so the farm incubates the eggs at 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to only hatch males for the skins, since the males get much larger than the females. (Cooler eggs would result in female crocs.)
The tour leader made it all sound very nice. He must have known how much it bothers some people though, because he reminded us several times that “sustainable utilization” is important for the crocodile’s long term survival. Elliott and I weren’t buying. We were saddened to realize that protection and conservation of an animal species is not enough reason in and of itself to prevent people from “needing” to buy products made of that animal’s skin. Somehow we would have been more accepting if the primary use of the crocs was for food, similar to farm-raised cattle. We kept an evil eye on the girl with the $900 Louis Vuitton shoulder bag – one of the “cheap” products made by the farm’s sole buyer of the croc skins, according to our tour guide.
Happy to move onto better things, we had a blast watching the saltwater and freshwater crocs being fed at the next show. The park employee stood on a bridge with a long pole, and dangled chicken carcasses over the water, getting the crocs to be as active as possible. The best part came after the show, however, when we got to feed the crocs ourselves!! We had never done this before since it was not offered at the alligator farms we visited in the States. We were each given two chicken heads to feed to two different crocs. After making a few jump and exercise, we would let a croc get the chicken head in its mouth, and then we’d hold on for dear life in order to not lose the entire pole to the croc! Watch us feed the crocs here (Elliott) and here (Stephanie).
In the afternoon we watched a snake show run by a man who is clearly very comfortable with snakes. He’s been around snakes his entire life, he’s the one they call when they need to remove a snake from a residential area, and he’s been snake hunting in Vietnam! He taught us how to administer first aid if we get bitten by a snake in Australia (it’s basically the same no matter what type of snake bite), and was sure to tell us the first aid protocol will probably differ if we get bitten in a different country. After the show, Elliott pet one of the snakes, but the host put his snakes away before I got to pet themL
Next up was the “Crocodile Attack” Show. The guy in this show wasn’t just feeding a croc. He was in the pen with a huge croc, in the water at times, in bare feet! He pointed out that if he were actually to be attacked by the crocodile, not wearing shoes would be the least of his problems. I wasn’t confident about that. He got this huge croc moving, chasing him, jumping, and even rolling over and showing its white belly! The “death roll,” as it’s called, is how crocodiles break their kill into more manageable pieces since they swallow their food whole. All those pointy teeth are used for holding and tearing, not chewing. Even though this croc’s death roll was pretty darn slow, it was a sight to see, and something we’d never seen before in all our alligator and crocodile sight-seeing adventures. Watch this croc, who refuses to let go of the food in his mouth, roll over!
Before the koala feeding, we spent some time roaming the free range wildlife section of the park. There we got to see and hand feed the wallabies, and watch them hop around. We are so used to NOT approaching wildlife that it was tough for us to get used to the fact that we could sit next to these guys and even pet them, and they seemed quite content with it all! They were too cute. We also saw a new animal for us, called a Quoll, which looked a bit like a large cat. And we learned that Australia has very few and only very small meat-eating marsupials.
Last but not least was the koala feeding, where the koalas rise out of their 18+ hours-per-day slumber and munch on some Eucalyptus leaves. Elliott’s not sure he thinks they’re adorable, but rather they look like little old men with bushy ear hair. I still think they’re cute and cuddly. I was dying to hold one, but Queensland has strict handling rules for koalas, and even the park employees are only allowed to disturb (aka hold) them for a total of 30 minutes in a 24 hour period! These cute koalas really need their rest. Watch this one do a cute koala yawn.
So, how did Hartley’s compare to the farms in St. Augustine and Hot Springs? Well, St. Augustine will always be my favorite. It contains all 23 existing species of crocodiles, caimans and alligators, it has an albino crocodile, it had one of the world’s largest crocs in captivity for many years, and it was my FIRST alligator farm. Plus it’s a Zoological Park, not a real farm. Hot Springs is my favorite because it is so wild (all the guys there run around in the water with the crocs it seems), so small and unassuming and family-run and oriented. They let me hold alligators there for FREE and laughed when Elliott told them they should charge for it! It’s also not a true farm, although you used to be able to buy baby gators there once upon a time! And Hartley’s is my favorite because even though it is a true farm, they let me FEED the crocodiles, and be in a boat surrounded by swimming and jumping crocs, and they’ve got the koala and wallaby and cassowary bonuses…. Snap snap.