Caging humans to watch 'free-roaming' mega predators is daft...
It wouldn't be my first thought on seeing a gigantic crocodile in a tank of water, to get my swimming trunks on and jump in. But then I haven't been to the Crocosauras park in Darwin, Australia, where the star turn is the chance of sharing a pool with a fearsome 5.5m long Saltwater crocodile.
And this bonkers adrenaline thrill isn't the only one of its kind either; there are other caged wildlife viewing experiences too, offering the opportunity of cowering behind bars while a creature - usually large and dangerous apex predators - is kept at bay by the bars.
All of the encounters look like accidents waiting to happen to me, and with crocs having a biting force of up to 5,000psi, being dunked like a Rich Tea Biscuit into their aquarium sure isn't my idea of fun. And small scale accidents have happened - Australia's Crocosaurus Cove 'Cage of Death' had a snapped chain in 2011 that led to the cylinder containing two people falling further into the tank. Nobody was hurt, and failsafe safety systems kicked in, but even so.
We humans choose how we get our kicks, but it does seem cruel to goad animals in this way. It's like a kiddie or a kitten being teased with a sweet or a ball of wool that remains denied them; which usually ends in tantrums and tears. And in all cases except for the shark cage diving, the animals have only the illusion of being more free than the caged humans, as of course they are just trapped in a somewhat larger enclosure.
Even with sharks, It's argued that 'shark baiting' - where chum (fish poarts, bone and blood) is thrown into the water to encourage the sharks to approach the cage - can significantly change their behaviour. Usually these animals are shy of humans, but the large quantities of bait used to lure them towards the cage makes the sharks bold, excited and aggressive.
There have been several accidents too - with sharks in such a frenzy that they have damaged the cage, and themselves. Perhaps over time sharks will fear humans less and come to view us and our boats as places to find food. It could upset the finely balanced feeding patterns too.
But wildlife watching is big business, and supports jobs and local communities. And while pretty much every park or operator offering caged wildlife experiences claim they are doing so (at least in part) to increase our knowledge and awareness of endangered species, there surely must be better ways of achieving that goal.
Where to be caged from wildlife...
Parque Safari, Chile. The park uses converted jeeps and trucks to give visitors the chance of seeing lions close up as they jump onto the roof and sniff around for food. Lions of course aren't native to Latin America, but to Africa, and these animals have been rescued from circuses. Along with most other animals at the park, they can no longer fend for themselves, and enjoy better conditions than in the circus and an element of rehabilitation - the lions have lush vegetation and a lake where they can cool off. Parque Safari has six lions in a five acre enclosure and is in Rancagua in Central Chile.
Crocosauras, Australia. The Cage of Death is an acrylic cylinder that holds two people at a time and is partly lowered into the Crocosaurus Cove aquarium, home to a 90-year-old, 100% kilo saltwater croc. It's the world's largest reptile, is native to Australia, and of all the sub species of croc is the one most likely to chow down on a human. Accidentally step into its territory and chances are you'll be devoured in short time. So we probably know how the animal views a couple of semi-naked thrill seekers in it's pool. The Crocosaurus park is in Darwin.
Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo, China. Here low-tech looking lorries with a green mesh cage on the back, and live chickens and chunks of meat help to encourage the animals to approach the cage. The vehicle drives through various enclosures so that the captive tourists can see lions, tigers and bears up close. Never has the oft-repeated fairground mantra 'keep your fingers and hands inside the car at all times' been so urgent. The Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo is in Chongqing.
African Croc Dive, South Africa. In the winelands region, is Le Bonheur crocodile farm, which uses a large narrow-meshed cage that can hold up to 10 divers, to view several of its 1,000 crocodiles. The farm Is 55 kilometres east of Cape Town. African Croc Dive
Orana Wildlife Park, New Zealand: the country's only open range zoo is spread over 80 acres. It offers a 'Lion Encounter' where guests trundle through a lion enclosure in a large cage on the back of a flatbed truck that holds a keeper and around 20 visitors. The lions often climb on top of the vehicle and paw at the top of the cage in order to get food. One of its selling points is that being in a cage gives guests 'the opportunity to interact with our specialised keepers who care for the animals'. The Orana Wildlife Park is on the outskirts of Christchurch.
Cango Wildlife Ranch, South Africa: this is the oldest Cheetah 'contact centre' in the world, but these days is more famous for its Croc Cage Diving. The metal-barred cylinder is lowered into the croc tank. Cango Park is 68 kilometres east north of George, in the Western Cape.
Crocodile Cage Diving, Zimbabwe. In the centre of the Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe, is a cage encounter outfit that offers the chance to '...experience crocodiles in their own environment. (and to) Get a unique underwater look at their short legs, thick tails, scaly scutes along the back and impressive jaws.' The Nile Crocodile is a much feared predator along stretches of the Zambezi River and there - its thought that they kill around people a year across Africa - are three large examples here. They were born into captivity in central Zimbabwe and were rescued. Crocodile Cage Diving
Sharks in Mexico, Australia, the USA and South Africa. There are perhaps hundreds of outfits offering the chance to watch sharks from inside a semi-submerged cage. Expeditions last from 2 to 8 days - and the first cage diving experience for tourists was organised by the Australian filmmaker, conservationist and shark expert, Rodney Fox in 1976. Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, Great White Shark Tours, Shark Diver, Shark Dive New Zealand, Guadalupe Island, Mexico, double decker.
One more thing...Jacques Cousteau was first to use a cage in the water for protection while filming sharks, back in 1948. Made from strong bars, the cage was lowered into the water with divers inside in order to better observe the creatures in their natural habitat.
And more recently his grandson Fabian, who carries on the family tradition of exploring the oceans and making films, has been working on a submersible from which to take footage of Great White sharks from. He says he was inspired by the Tintin comic book, 'Red Rackham's Treasure', in which Tintin and his dog Snowy journey to the bottom of the sea in a submarine that looks like a large shark.
The result is 'Troy', as the sub is known. It's 14 feet long and made from 2-inch thick steel rib 'cage' covered in an elastic material more often used in animatronics. It doesn't make bubbles either, owing to the fact that it is a closed circuit design, it's very quiet and mimmicks the tail movements of a real shark.
The idea is that this stealthy submarine resembles a great white shark enough to fool the real sharks into a more natural form of behaviour that when confronted with regular divers and their cameras. In the case of Troy, there are three cameras hidden at the front, including one ingeniously concealed inside a fake sucker fish on the sharks head.