How to Swim with a Crocodile . . Safely

For those of us who are inspired by nature, documentaries are a wonderful way to gain access to environments and creatures that are usually inaccessible to us. They are a window on a world that is often hidden from us or otherwise off limits and we are indebted to the dedicated and talented filmmakers and crew who have, in many cases, dedicated their lives to bringing us these wonderful images. And as technology improves we are being offered increasingly spectacular invitations into the non-human realm.

A friend recently recommended the incredible and awe-inspiring documentary ‘The Man Who Swims With Crocodiles’, the remarkable story of a Costa Rican man, Chico, who has seemingly befriended a 16-foot crocodile named Pocho. I’d highly recommend it. It’s easy to let such spectacular films wash over us; the images are often so alien to our experience that it feels like enough to just let the story sink in without bringing too much thinking to bear on it. And while that’s fine and very pleasant, especially on the first watch, we should remain mindful that we are at the mercy of the filmmakers take on the unfolding story. In the case of Chico and Pocho I think a lot of important questions were asked and different perspectives explored but there are a few threads that I’d like to pick up and expand on.

Firstly, early on in the film the narrator asks whether it’s possible for a giant crocodile, a fearsome and brutal creature well known for actively hunting humans, to possess human-like emotions. I was really struck by this question. I understand that the thing that makes this documentary so intriguing is that crocodiles do not usually befriend humans, they usually eat them! So, the apparent love between Chico and Pocho is a remarkable and, indeed unique, event. However, there is also an implication in the question that humans are somehow the benchmark against which the crocodile is being assessed. I say this because such an attitude is all-pervasive in our consideration of the natural world; even when we are ostensibly celebrating and exploring nature, we struggle to get away from our anthropocentric starting point of human qualities being good and everything else being measured against that standard. Perhaps crocodiles have a system of ‘emotions’ that are completely incomprehensible to us?

Crocodiles are one of nature’s great survivors with an awesome set of physical attributes. They’ve been around much longer than we have and even through vast changes in planetary conditions have adapted and thrived. Perhaps then the question is not whether the crocodiles share any traits in common with us humans, but whether we share any traits in common with them; reverse the question, set the crocodile as the standard and we entertain a radically different perspective. But crocodiles are brutal man-eaters with no sense of compassion, right? Do we really have any basis on which to take the moral high-ground, with what we’ve done not only to other species but also to each other? I don’t think so. Besides, at least crocodiles, like most other non-human animals, only take what they need from the limited natural bounty around them. And why is it so appalling to us that crocodiles eat humans anyway? If we’re ok with them preying on other animals then why should we think ourselves exempt from their menu? Other than our extreme egotism kicking in and our persistent belief that we are not an animal body, just a thinking mind; the unhelpful idea that animality is bad and cognitivism is good. This issue is beautifully explored in David Abram’s wonderful book Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology.

Secondly, the fact that we are in jaw-dropping awe at Chico getting into the water with a giant crocodile underscores the reality of our very vulnerable situation here on Earth and the fact that we don’t really possess any inherent survival skills. The crocodile can kill him, easily. Our greatest natural attribute is our huge brain which we’ve used to create technologies to insulate us from certain aspects of nature. There are lots of things in nature that can overpower us, eat us, infect us, and have a huge impact on our society. When we realized this in the era of ‘rationalism’ we decided to wage a war on nature; the paradigm of human versus nature was born. But rather than see non-human nature as a threat that we must increasingly defend and insulate ourselves against, we should celebrate and respect the differences we have with other species. Nature, is all its various forms and guises, has evolved over planetary time, always finding new ways to thrive and persist. We simply cannot separate ourselves from nature or imagine a scenario where we control it. Instead we need the humility to recognize that we must co-exist with nature and work for our mutual benefit. Pocho and his kind remind us that nature can be fearsome and brutal if we don’t bring the correct and appropriate attitude towards it.

But there’s another, more hopeful, point that struck me about the film. A human and a giant crocodile becoming buddies seems completely impossible. Yet the film shows that this is precisely what has happened. We are in the midst of a heart-breaking ecological crisis. It’s estimated that 200-300 species are going extinct every day and there is nothing in sight which seems like it will bring this to an end. But Chico and Pocho demonstrate that we should not place limits on what we believe to be possible. It seems impossible to reverse the trend of human impact on nature, to fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, but perhaps it is not. We should not give up and just accept 200-300 species going extinct as somehow ok. It is not acceptable and we also do not have to consent to a paradigm which says that humans must lord over nature or else it will be at our peril. We can be part of a new way forward, one which recognizes the interconnection of all life on Earth, celebrates all life and reaches out to form new bonds and build new relationships with all life.

Not to put a dampener on the inspiring story of Chico and Pocho but there have been several cases of highly unlikely bonds between humans and animals that have eventually gone sour and not worked out so well for the human! Who knows why this has happened? After years of bonding the primal instincts of wild animals sometimes kick in again. Perhaps this is a reminder that ultimately non-human nature must be respected, valued on its own terms and not humanized. I admired the way that Chico studied Pocho’s subtle communication signals and learnt to speak with him that way, rather than trying to enforce his own method. It was respectful and he clearly understood that his role was not to make the crocodile more like a human. Perhaps when things go wrong it is because that respect has broken down, the animal realizes this and does not like it. Let’s hope that Chico continues to relate to Pocho on Pocho’s terms; let’s hope the same for humanity to nature in general.

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