Crocodile Tears, Hippos, and Human Nature

It is pretty common to hear the expression crocodile tears, to refer to somebody who only appears to feel remorse or sadness, but is in fact merely shedding tears our of hypocrisy. They feel, the phrase suggests, nothing for their victim.

The reason we speak of crocodiles in this instance is because everyone believes the crocodile is so remorseless an animal that for him to weep over a victim is pure hypocrisy. It is a nice conceit. Sir John Mandeville in the 14th century, the writer who so influenced Christopher Columbus, gave currency to this belief: “In that country and by all Inde be great plenty of cockodrills, that is a manner of a long serpent, as I have said before. And in the night they dwell in the water, and on the day upon the land, in rocks and in caves. And they eat no meat in all the winter, but they lie as in a dream. These serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping.”

Of course, while all 23 members of the crocodile family including alligators, caimans, muggers, and gharials, have tear glands, they are used for purely physical reasons, for example, to moisten the eyes when they are on dry land, and not for emotional reasons: crocodiles do not in fact weep over their victims. They don’t weep at all for emotional reasons, as far as we know. No animal other than the human animal weeps from sadness or remorse or grief. But this is not to say that other animals never feel sadness or remorse or grief; only that they don’t express these feelings by weeping tears any more than we express happiness by purring or wagging a tail.

The other day as I was talking to a friend about this picturesque expression, he assured me that one fact about crocodiles that was certain was their refusal to eat another crocodile. This, it turns out, is as much a myth as the tears. Two scientists from the School of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries of Louisiana State University, describe precisely this in a scholarly journal “Cannibalism in the American Alligator,” and conclude that “cannibalism accounted for 50.2% of total hatchling mortality and 63.7% of total mortality in alligators of age 11 mo and older.” Yet we also read, by an equal authority: “A crocodilian’s jaws are terrible weapons, and adults are quite capable of killing each other. However, this rarely happens. The loser in a stand-off can indicate submission by vocalizations if it is a juvenile, or by lifting its head vertically to expose its throat. It is usually then allowed to slink off without further aggression.” So which is it? Hard to say.

Crocodiles are very vocal animals. Their social life begins before hatching, and communications occur from egg to egg. They definitely talk to one another. Moreover, it is pretty much universally recognized among scholars that hatchlings have a distinct distress call, which not only brings the mother to help, but also other crocodiles in the vicinity. Here is a rather striking account: “Provoking a large adult to attack is a frightening experience. While staff at a crocodile farm in Papua New Guinea were walking around the breeding pens of freshwater New Guinea Crocodiles (Crocodylus novaeguineae) they heard a stray hatchling calling along a fence line. After some searching they found and picked up the hatchling. It called loudly, and immediately the previously quiet pond nearby erupted with the frantic activity of some twenty adults plunging into the water and swimming in the direct of the staff and hatchling. The dominant male responded by dashing to their corner of the enclosure. He headslapped repeatedly in the water at the base of the bank and then charged out of the water straight into the chainlink fence where they were standing. Females swam nervously about, vocalized with deep guttural calls, and also headslapped frequently.” Sounds to me like the adults want to protect the babies, any babies. Sounds to me like empathy. Empathy in a crocodile? Try saying that in a scientific meeting of herpetologists.

I bring this up because of an intriguing problem. Suppose you were asked to describe the “nature” of the crocodile. No matter how great an expert (if you were not, you would probably describe them as solitary predators, which they are not) you were, your information would be limited. What we know, for sure, is only a tiny fraction of what there is to know. This is true, of course, of many animals, but takes on particular importance in an animal which looms so large in our imagination, and about whom people believe they already know everything they need to know.

Solitary predator; no feelings; incapable of empathy. Crocodiles and human psychopaths. But in the one case, this is accurate; in the other it is an accumulation of myths and prejudices. So here is my problem: What do we say if asked to describe “human nature.” Well, we balk, of course, and claim it is not possible. But if we make an attempt, we will discover that hardly any two humans can agree. Are we an aggressive species? Are we a murderous species? Are we an empathic species? We have members of our species who would correspond to each of these descriptions, not to mention a million others.

Now I am not saying that crocodiles have as much variation in their personalities and their nature as we do. But I am saying that we are in no position to be casting stones at them. As we do and continue to do: “Natural predation and mortality of these ruling reptiles pales into insignificance compared with the toll from hunting and habitat alteration by human beings,” notes on expert.

But how far can we take this? We don’t say that humans are benign by nature, do we? Nor would we say the same of crocodiles, in spite of a remarkable video on YouTube (just search for Chito and Pocho) which shows a Costa Rican fisherman who saved a 17-foot thousand-pound crocodile and the two were inseparable for 20 years until the crocodile died of old age in 2011. (Interesting that when RTE News describes the crocodile, they call him “deadly”!) They swam together, played together and seemed very “bonded.” But it is not something you would want to try on your own. “Taming” a wild crocodile is generally a losing proposition. Remember Humphrey, the hippo, who was saved from a flood when he was still a baby and was raised as a pet in South Africa?

In a video released in March on YouTube, in early 2011, you can see Major Mario Els with his pet hippo, with whom he lived with for 6 years, feeding him apples, swimming with him and climbing on his back. He said he regarded him as a member of his family and was as close a friend as he had ever had: “They think you can only have a relationship with dogs, cats and domestic animals. But I have a relationship with the most dangerous animal in Africa.” In spite of this recognition, Els completely trusted Humphrey, whom he called “a gentle giant,” to never harm anyone. In November 2011 the 2,500 pound “tame” hippo savagely attacked Els and killed him by biting him nearly in half.

The lesson? We don’t know nearly enough about anyone, ourselves and other animals included.

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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3 Responses to Crocodile Tears, Hippos, and Human Nature

  1. Patty Bowers says:

    So sorry to hear about Els and Humphrey. How many times does it need to be said that “YOU CAN NEVER TRUST A WILD ANIMAL” ?!!! It doesn’t matter how long you have been “bonded to” or trusted this 4 legged friend, in the end, he/she is still WILD, thus unpredictable. We should not expect them to be more than they are, which is WILD. It is not their “fault” if they eventually do what they were designed to do, in the case of Humphrey, to fear mankind….That does not mean they do not deserve our compassion, attention to survival and habitat, respect and adoration. We just can’t keep WILD animals out of their own environments or expect more from them than they were designed to be!
    Patty Bowers

    • [He said he regarded him as a member of his family and was as close a friend as he had ever had […] In November 2011 the 2,500 pound “tame” hippo savagely attacked Els and killed him by biting him nearly in half. ]

      I don’t see a contradiction. Friends and family do this kind of thing all the time, after all.

  2. Patty Bowers says:

    I have never known any friends or family that have killed each other. I appreciate your joke but I don’t think that we should ultimately trust or expect wild animals to not be,in the end, WILD. Just my opinion. Have seen too many unfortunate results of it. And no one loves animals hardly more than me! I’ve seen the delightful films of the man and his hippo and how the hippo came in his home all the time and how “close” they seemed to be. It’s sad though that man who loved his hippo so deeply did not really understand that he was a WILD animal.

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