Growing up on a 2000 acre property in New South Wales, Vicki Lowing fell in love with native animals. At the age of four she was rearing blue tongue lizards. At ten, she’d moved on to snakes. At 23, Vicki adopted her first saltwater crocodile, Rocky. She’s been researching and caring for both “freshies” and “salties” ever since, adopting them from regretful former owners unable to cope with the demands of caring for one of nature’s most terrifying predators. Vicki’s friendly crocs defy stereotypes and roam comfortably around her home; one of them, a 22-year-old freshwater called Johnie, has been known to crawl into bed with and sleep alongside her owner.
Lowing and her crocs now live in the suburban sprawl of Melbourne’s West. She’d rather not have it this way, but was forced to leave two different hobby farms after blue-green algae outbreaks proved toxic to her animals. With its quality of water and easy access to resources, oddly enough the city might just be the safest and most viable place to keep five large crocodiles who crave almost 24-hour attention and require highly specialised care.
“Being captive-bred they can't ever be released into the wild, which I would rather see, of course,” Lowing explains to me. She’s spent the morning having to explain her complex living situation to the Victorian wildlife officers who visited her property after receiving calls from concerned prospective tenants looking to move in next door. She’s exhausted.
“But they can't. They wouldn't survive. So what I try to do is give them the best I can.”
Lowing has a licence to keep her crocodiles, and after thirty years is probably one of Australia’s foremost experts in raising and caring for our most feared and revered native animals. But she lives alone on a pension, and is currently struggling to cobble together the funds required to build her large saltwater croc, Jilly, the larger enclosure her burgeoning size requires in order to meet wildlife regulations. Still, she is more than happy to put these stresses aside and talk, in loving detail, about a much-maligned and frequently misunderstood species.
To introduce you to Vicki’s crocs, we should start with Johnie. The snappy saltwater is something of a matriarch, and clearly dear to her owner’s heart. She was Lowing’s only crocodile for many years, and before reaching breeding age regularly slept in her bed, accompanied her on car rides, and walked alongside her on suburban footpaths while wearing a harness.
“Because I had her first and she could only identify with me, a human, she was very much humanised,” Lowing explains.
Next up is Fovian, Johnie’s mate. This is a love story: the duo initially hated each other on sight, but eventually mated and had two babies, JJ (Johnie Junior) and FJ (Fovian Junior), in 2016. Johnie lay the eggs on Vicki’s bed and she hatched them in an incubator.
“One baby takes after mum and one takes after dad, in looks and personality,” Lowing says with affection.
Then there’s Jilfia, usually referred to as “Jilly”. Objectively terrifying, Jilly is an enormous saltater crocodile and therefore far deadlier than her freshwater counterparts. I marvel at the fact Lowing can share her living space with a reptile well known to consider humans as prey. While Vicki is the first to admit her pets are extremely dangerous and should be handled with care, apex predators are more chilled out than one might think.
“Being a saltwater crocodile she's actually way more placid than the freshwater crocodiles,” Lowing explains. “Because they know that if they want to eat you, they can. There's nothing in the world they have to defend themselves from, you know? They'll just grab you if they want you, simple as that. But she’s a darling, Jilly. I've got to be more wary of her of course because if she gave me love bites she would take my leg off.”
When you share your house with crocodiles, there are strict rules and precautions to be followed. Never make eye contact: a croc will consider this a challenge, and attack. Don’t crouch down in front of them, and stand tall at all times. Teach them the word “no”, because crocodiles can learn commands in the same way dogs can. They’re also prone to the same sorts of emotional outbursts as other domestic pets.
“They're very sensitive creatures, and if I yell at them they'll really sulk,” says Lowing. She once yelled at Jilly for trying to attack a chook, and the croc spent the rest of the afternoon in a bad mood, refusing to move from one corner of the backyard.
“So I had to apologise to her because she was only doing what was natural. They're very confused crocodiles, they try and do something that's instinctive to them and I yell at them.”
It’s this generously empathetic understanding of a captive animal’s plight that differentiates Lowing from others who might choose to rear dangerous and exotic creatures in their homes. Sometimes when the crocs are hungry they’ll bang on her door in the middle of the night, and she’ll dutifully feed them. She’s been unable to find a life partner able to commit to living with five large reptiles, and must therefore care for them alone. Melbourne’s “Croc Lady” has dedicated her life to looking after the green scaley outcasts of Australia’s animal kingdom, and while most people won’t need the warning, her message to anyone taking inspiration from her life is pretty simple: think twice.
“I'm so passionate about my animals that it's natural to treat them like any pet. But some people will go out and get a crocodile as though it's a pitbull, and it just doesn't work like that. The animal suffers, and of course they can be very dangerous. I don't want to say only I can have them, but they're definitely only for professionals.”
You can donate to Vicki’s GoFundMe here.
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