Thu, 19 Jul 2018
I AM a big fan of animals, with one exception. I don’t like scary ones. You know like, snakes, sharks and … er…crocodiles. So when offered the chance to visit Crocodiles of the World, I dithered (my normal state, I’m told) and pretended I was too busy and couldn’t possibly find time to be a model parent, taking my children to something educational and entertaining.
But once my two boys (aged eight and six) got wind of the opportunity, resistance was futile and within just a few days the three of us were heading up the A34 to Oxfordshire (where else?) to hunt for crocodiles.
After driving down a leafy lane and turning into a large, but unremarkable car park, all was going well and I only froze momentarily at the life-like and life-size metal crocodile guarding the entrance to Crocodiles of the World and into whose mouth the youngest was feeding his arm.
As we tentatively pushed the lobby door open, we encountered our first dimly-lit enclosure and gingerly peered in… from about four metres away.
A quick discussion concluded that the area was actually empty and not housing the Chinese Alligator as indicated, when out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a sizeable and terrifyingly prehistoric tail slither into the water and disappear with just enough sound for me to know I hadn’t imagined it.
With just a few inches now separating us from a big old lump of an alligator, I protectively ushered the boys through another door and into the main hall, while at the same time throwing several backward glances to check we weren’t being followed.
After a friendly welcome, we were invited to wander wherever we wanted and with hindsight it was with comical, but I’m guessing not unusual, reluctance that the three of us stayed rooted to the spot for far too long, steeling ourselves to approach our first proper enclosure.
As our eyes adjusted to the light, we again initially wrote off the tank as empty and ‘no doubt being cleaned’ when we became aware of a pair of eyes, not far away, staring unblinkingly at us.
Then another pair. And another and another... and all the eyes were attached to half-submerged caimans. Stock still, ‘floating’ caimans, seemingly suspended in the water and looking at us. Right at us. Right through us.
‘They’re not real, they’re not moving’ one of our party scoffed before, right on cue, one of the caimans moved and effortlessly swam towards the glass to get a proper look at these particularly daft humans peering in.
After the unnerving shock of being quite so close to these prehistoric animals and having slowly got used to their unblinking stare, we set off to the next tanks with a little more confidence, agreeing that the small caimans were, in fact, rather cute.
But then we found ourselves in the low-lit American Alligator section. And as our eyes adjusted we saw him, Albert, and her, Daisy.
Truly magnificent and terrifying beasts, which in Albert’s case measured more than three metres in length and weighed a whopping 180kg. And they had babies that needed protecting too.
Being so close to such astonishing animals from another time took our breath away and felt like a real privilege – at least for the two of us brave enough to venture all of the way in to get a proper look over the railings. I couldn’t possibly say who loitered at the back, but I do want to make it clear, it was definitely one of my young children and not me. Definitely.
And so we bravely pushed on. Discovering exotic and bewitching animals and reptiles at every turn – from West African dwarf crocodiles to saltwater crocodiles and from monitor lizards to reticulated pythons.
Despite our growing confidence and having made peace with some of the crocodiles and alligators – if that’s possible – it was still with some relief that we found ourselves outside and cooing over the ubiquitous meerkats, the fabulous Asian short-clawed otters that were particularly active at feeding time, and marvelling at the cheeky tamarins – squirrel-sized monkeys.
A bite to eat and then we pressed on again; particularly keen to watch feeding time of the Nile crocodiles in the Croc House. And it didn’t disappoint, in fact we watched it twice.
The enclosure is the largest on the site and like many at the zoo, the glass walls allow a fascinating glimpse of the above and below-water life of the crocs.
And there are a lot of crocs. As soon as keeper Terry Miles started along his feeding walkway, the water below him was a writhing mass. And as soon as he dangled the food, a fascinating show of ‘leaping’ crocodiles ensued – the Croc House filled with the sound of snapping jaws.
As Terry explained, crocodiles are perfectly ‘designed’ – they are intelligent, have the most powerful bite of any animal and are efficient killers – the culmination of approximately 228 million years of evolution.
Elsewhere in the Croc House – cleverly designed with elevated walkways to afford visitors the very best views – there were more precious and endangered species including Cuban crocodiles, the magnificent three metres of prime Siamese croc that answers to the name Hugo – they really do respond to their names – and the Tomistoma, which at 3.6 metres in length is the largest crocodile at the zoo.
Throw in a huge komodo dragon – one of only four in the UK – and countless other animals, and Crocodiles of the World kept myself and my otherwise easily-distracted young boys enthralled and entertained for more than five hours.
The zoo is Tardis-like and feels much larger inside than its outside appearance may suggest. It houses an indoor café with reasonably-priced fare, an outside play and picnic area, a gift shop and an education zone.
Its main attractions are indoor so the weather isn’t a factor and it is competitively priced too, with adult tickets costing £8.95, children under 16 £6.50 and family tickets £27.
For those wanting a little bit extra and for an extra fee, there is also the opportunity to handle a croc, ‘meet’ a croc and feed a croc along with other animal experiences.
Unsurprisingly, the zoo is popular with groups and offers educational tours for schools and other parties too and can also organise outreach visits to schools and community clubs.
On leaving, it was clear that in our various ways, we all had a far deeper knowledge and understanding of crocodiles and alligators and old feelings of unadulterated fear had been replaced with a new-found respect – and just the right amount of fear – for these most fascinating creatures.
• Only zoo in the UK to successfully breed critically endangered Siamese crocodiles
• Only zoo in the UK to successfully breed vulnerable Tomistoma crocodiles
• One of only four zoos in the UK where you can see a komodo dragon
The Zoo’s history
The zoo was founded in 2011 by crocodile conservationist Shaun Foggett and was originally located at Crawley Mill, Witney.
However, with increasing visitor numbers and a growing population of crocodiles, the zoo needed to move and opened its new premises in Brize Norton in 2014. It now attracts more than 70,000 visitors a year.
The journey of ‘the Croc Man’
Shaun became known as ‘The Croc Man’ following a one-off documentary shown on the Discovery Channel. Later that year, a mini-series was made by Channel 5, following his journey to open the zoo.
Prior to opening the zoo Shaun studied and learnt about crocodiles through his own personal collection; all housed in a purpose-built enclosure at the semi-detached West Oxfordshire home he shared with fiancée Lisa and his young family. By 2009 his collection had reached 21, which was when he knew it was time to relocate. Setting up the zoo has taken personal sacrifice, including leaving the family building business and selling his family home.
Crocodiles of the World Foundation
On August 8, 2013, the foundation received formal confirmation of its charity status from the Charity Commission, the regulator for charities in England and Wales.
This enables the zoo to continue with its commitment to advancing crocodilian conservation and promoting awareness of environmental issues affecting crocodiles.
For more information visit: www.crocodilesoftheworld.co.uk