8. HEALTH CARE
7.1 Should I handle my caiman?
Opinions on whether to handle a caiman or other crocodilian vary quite a bit, but there is no right answer to this question. If the animal is primarily for display, then regular handling will not be on the list of priorities. In addition, some people feel that every time you handle your animal, you will cause it stress - which can cause it to stop feeding. The opposite view is that regular handling can be beneficial for both caiman and owner, for the very reason that it will reduce stress in the long-term. Most owners would prefer to handle their animal regularly in order to calm it down and discourage it from biting out of fear.
If you subscribe to the latter view, it is important to start handling your caiman when it's still very young or you'll find it increasingly difficult to make any impression as the animal grows larger. A young crocodilian will initially regard you as a threat - a predator about to eat it. When you pick it up, the caiman will often produce a "distress call" - a loud, characteristic call which basically means "help!" and sounds like "eeow!" The more often you pick the caiman up and handle it, the more it will begin to habituate to your presence - learning that being picked up is not the prelude to a dinner, with the caiman as the main course. Over time, if you spend enough time with the animal, it will start to become calmer around you, and be less inclined to bite. It may even be possible to end up with a relatively tame caiman after a year or two. However, individual temperaments vary, and one caiman is not the same as another. Remember also that, while a caiman may get used to you and be less inclined to bite, it might still be capable of confusing your hand for a piece of food. Be careful, and read the advice in the feeding section of this FAQ regarding safe feeding methods (see 5.3.1).
Another advantage of handling your caiman regularly is that you'll find tasks such as cleaning the enclosure far easier if the caiman isn't panicking all the time. It will also mean that the caiman is under less stress whenever you go near it or interact with it in some way. However, do not be lulled into a false sense of security with your animal - remember what it is capable of, especially when it grows larger. Many people feel that the feeding reflex of a crocodilian is very hard to inhibit under all circumstances.
7.2 When should I start handling my caiman?
If you want to handle your caiman, you must start as soon as possible. You'll find the task much easier when the animal is still small - the caiman requires less effort to handle, and its bites are far less painful if you make a mistake. Hopefully, when the caiman starts to grow larger, it will eventually become considerably calmer towards you. An aggressive adult caiman is virtually impossible to calm down, and interaction becomes much more dangerous.
7.3 How often should I handle my caiman?
Your caiman can be handled very frequently, at least once a day for several minutes. However, don't forget to consider the caiman's requirements - if it's much colder outside its enclosure, then don't deprive it of its comfortable heat and warmth for too long. If you're over-handling your animal, it may start to become stressed and eat less - monitor its food intake and leave it alone for a few days if you suspect this is the case. Don't handle your animal for a few hours after it's been fed - a stressed caiman may regurgitate its dinner, and there is a possibility of the animal choking on regurgitated food.
7.4 What's the best way to pick up a caiman?
For added safety, it may be a good idea to secure the jaws. While crocodilians have perhaps the most powerful bite of any animal when adult, the musculature that opens the jaws is far weaker. The jaws can easily be held shut with a hand, but it is safer to use an elastic band, masking / duct tape or some other kind of fabric loop - otherwise a struggling animal can slice through your flesh with its sharp teeth which project above and below the jaw-line even with the mouth shut. The band needs to be moderately tight, or the jaws will open a fraction - enough to slip a finger inside. Adhesive tape can be used on larger animals, such as gaffer / duct tape in which the adhesive is not too strong. Be careful when removing the tape - some keepers feel that it can damage the skin, although most professional croc workers use this tape and never have any problems with scalation damage. Melissa Kaplan describes another method: "We used a velcro strap configuration - two loops joined by a straight piece. One, smaller loop is secured around the front of the snout behind the nostrils. A second, larger loop is securely fastened near the back of the jaws. For larger crocs, a third loop can be situated so that it wraps around the top of the neck - left to its own devices too long, a canny croc can contrive to undo the lower loop by scratching with its front feet. Having the third loop reduces the amount of sliding and prevents the croc from slipping it off." Use whatever method you are happy with, but I personally think tape is the simplest and safest method.
Be cautious when you cover the jaws - do not cover the fleshy nostril "button" at the tip of the snout. When the jaws are closed, this is the only way the crocodilian can breath. Covering it will lead to suffocation after a couple of hours or less. Elastic bands have been known to slip over this button as the animal struggles, and the animal has died. Consider your own safety, but never neglect the animal's welfare.
7.5 Should I use gloves?
Some keepers prefer to use gloves when they handle crocodilians, so that the effect of any bite is reduced. However, others feel that using gloves can hinder your grasp on the animal, and make it hard to judge pressure. Also, gloves will not stop the bite of a more powerful animal, so their value is questionable. Personally, I prefer not to use gloves. If you are careful when you handle any crocodilian, and don't rush things, you should not get bitten. In the end, it is personal choice. Gloves can be very useful, for example, if you want to clean the enclosure without handling the animal - just in case your hand gets too close to its jaws.
7.6 How do I release my caiman again?
I've seen quite a few people (myself included!) get bitten by a crocodilian after they have let it go - the animal can turn the head around rapidly once it's released and deliver a powerful bite. Always release the animal pointing away from you, preferably into the water where it will swim away. If you propel the animal away from you into water, it won't have time to turn and bite before it slips out of range. Release your hands from around the neck and tail at the same time, and never hold onto the tail after you've released the neck - the crocodilian body is very flexible, and can easily twist around 180 degrees to try and bite you. Of course, don't forget to remove the elastic band or other restraint around the animal's jaws before you let it go or it won't be able to eat.
7.7 What about handling a larger caiman?
The word "handle" in this context does not really include picking up a large crocodilian - large meaning anything over 1.2 to 1.5 metres (4 to 5 feet). Large, aggressive animals are best kept at a distance in most circumstances, and they're also extremely heavy! With the rare exception of very tame crocodilians, they can be very hazardous to handle and normally require the assistance of at least a second person in order to be safe. It is dangerous to capture larger crocodilians using just your bare hands, because it is difficult to prevent the powerful head from whipping around and delivering a very nasty bite. There is also no way you can hold down a very large and aggressive animal by yourself, no matter what you've seen on TV. A catchpole may be necessary to hold the neck while a second or third person concentrates on restraining the body and securing the animal's jaws. If your once timid caiman is so difficult to handle, however, it is far better not to do so unless absolutely necessary. Cleaning of the enclosure can often be performed without handling the caiman, using a broom or other long wooden pole to gently nudge the animal out of the way if necessary. A gentle tap on the top of the head or the base of the tail is nearly always enough to encourage the animal to move away from you. Hitting an animal hard enough to injure it is the domain of idiots.
Tim Wiegmann has an alternative method: "In smaller enclosures, you can use a wooden shield much like an additional wall. The shield is just a square of wood with a handle on one side. It is very easy to push small to medium sized animals out of the way if you need to move through the enclosure."
If you use such a shield, make sure there is a handle on the back and don't hold it by the edges. A wooden pole is preferable in larger enclosures with bigger animals - this way the crocodilian can be kept at a suitable distance. Keep the pole away from the side of the jaws, or it might be bitten hard and your animal will likely lose a few teeth and you'll also need a new pole.
Capture and restraint methods for very large and aggressive animals are outside the scope of this FAQ, and there is no way you can learn how to do this by reading an essay - you must have first-hand experience. Look for an experienced and responsible instructor such as a vet or trained handler at a reputable crocodile farm or zoo.
7.8 What do I do if my caiman bites me?
Crocodilian bites usually come in two flavours - quick, warning bites where the teeth barely puncture the skin, and long, holding bites where the crocodilian applies a considerable amount of pressure and does not let go. The latter are obviously more painful - and dangerous in large animals particularly if the animal thrashes its head or rolls its body.
The key to dealing with a holding bite is not to panic. If you try and pull your finger / hand / whatever free, you'll cause more damage as the teeth tear through your skin (see photo to left). Gently tapping the upper jaw can often elicit the animal to open its mouth slightly. Try and prevent the crocodilian from twisting its body and rolling, which will do a considerable amount of damage. As a last resort, a pair of screwdrivers can be placed laterally across the mouth near the back of the throat and used to pry the jaws apart. In this case, someone should hold the animal's neck and head firmly in position from behind to prevent a second bite once released - another reason why it's important to always have at least one other person with you when working with any crocodilian over 1.2 to 1.5 metres (4 to 5 feet) in length.
The resulting wound should be disinfected using chlorohexadine (Nolvasan or Hibiclens) or povidone-iodine (Betadine) as soon as possible. The teeth of a crocodilian often harbour an interesting diversity of nasty organisms, and I've seen a number of unpleasant infections resulting from even quite minor wounds.
In short, try not to get bitten.