Thursday, July 30, 2009

Feeding Guinea Pigs to Crocodiles (and other things that are not normally allowed in zoos)

One of the greatest attractions in Bujumbura, I was told upon arrival, was the Musee Vivant, or the Living Museum. With a name like that, it seemed like an innocuous children’s park, with a couple of friendly goats, and perhaps some monkeys, that children could feed and pet.
Not so, my friend told me. There are crocodiles there, she said, and you can feed them. With live guinea pigs.

Obviously, I had to see this for myself.

I managed to convince two of my guy friends to come with me. If I was going to feed crocodiles, I preferred to do so in the company of people who would be entertained by the experience, not with people who were going to whine about it. It is, admittedly, an experience that doesn’t sit well with many muzungus. But where else can you see a crocodile on the hunt, other than on National Geographic?

After paying the 5,000 Franc (less than $5) entry fee, a guide walked up to escort us around the small park. It was more of a zoo, but with a real focus on crocodiles. The guide had worked there for twenty years, he said, and hasn’t lost a finger or appendage yet. He also told me that he simply doesn’t take chances, particularly with the big crocodiles.

The first two concrete pens separately held adolescent crocodiles, about three feet long. They were Nile crocodiles, he explained, and the younger they are, the more agile. He asked us if we wanted to feed them with guinea pigs (les cochons-dindes) or with rabbits. The guys, excited to see exactly how fast these crocodiles could move (since they were just languishing in the small pools of water), took the guide up on the offer, and for 4,000 Francs each, we had two guinea pigs ready for sacrifice.

One of my friends dropped the guinea pig into the pen, and the crocodile launched out of its resting place, whipping water violently on the walls of the pen, and darted for the prey. In one bite, it was gone. The second was dropped into the other pen, with the same effect. With a squeal, the guinea pig had disappeared. The only trace that remained was a smear of blood on the crocodile’s snout.

My friends asked how much it would cost to give the crocodile a goat, so there would at least be a fight. The guide said it was 50,000 Francs (about $50). We decided it wasn’t worth it. (Plus, you can buy a goat on the side of the road for $10, so asking $50 was way too much.)

Moving on, we came to the leopard cage. In the past, the leopard had been living in a 2 meter by 1 meter cage, but the Musee Vivant decided to build it a larger one, with a tall canopy and large branch so that the leopard could climb up and perch if it wanted to. There was a bucket of water in a corner surrounded by, inexplicably, tufts of fur.

The leopard had a full, thick, spotted coat. He rubbed against the cage, which was so close that we could reach out and touch its body (though we were told not to try to pet its face, because we would probably lose several fingers). The guide told us that we could also feed the leopard with a guinea pig. We took him up on the offer, and a couple of minutes later, he emerged with one in hand.

With a toss into the cage, the leopard pounced, grabbing the guinea pig by the head and carrying it around the cage. After settling on a place to eat, it walked around in circles before lying down and systematically eating, by carefully pulling off the fur and discarding it in tufts on the ground. The mystery of the piles of fur had been solved. Even big cats don’t like hairballs.

Next, we saw the large crocodiles, which occupied enormous pens. Each had its own, and was submerged in the shallow pool of water, with only their eyes and their slit ears above the surface. We were the prey; they followed our movements, slowly lumbering in our general direction as we walked around the pen. They were also Nile crocodiles, about seven or eight feet long, and wide in the middle. One looked ready to pounce, which it probably would have, if not for the tall concrete walls that surrounded it.

The next stop was the chimpanzee cage, and the guide warned us not to get too close with our cameras, because the chimps grab them—and getting them back in one piece would be difficult. They reached their black, hairy, humanlike hands through the cage, trying to snatch my camera and the beer that my friend was drinking. (Er…there’s another thing that’s not allowed in the United States.)

My friends may or may not have given beer to the chimps, and the chimps may or may not have shared it. The guide, who was very laissez-faire about everything, responded in a way that made it clear that this is a relatively frequent occurrence. The chimps went crazy.

We moved into the reptile house, where we saw a spitting cobra, a regular cobra, some other venom-spitting snakes, and some innocuous ones. We also held an enormous python, which began to wrap itself ominously around our arms, and defecated on both of my friends. They were nonplussed, to say the least, and tried to wash off the white mess.

The last attraction was the baby crocodile pen. The guide jumped in and, with swiftness and confidence, grabbed the baby crocodile, which was about a foot long, by the snout and tail, securing its jaws firmly shut. He passed it to us to hold, giving us careful directions about how to hold it so as to not lose a finger. We each took hold of it (it urinated on one of the guys…it wasn’t his lucky day) and felt its smooth underbelly and rough skin.

The guide then asked us if we wanted to feed it. We did, and he brought back a baby guinea pig (the regular ones were too big for him). This was my Achilles heel, and I should have known it. The baby he brought back was adorable, and fit in the palm of my hand. I made the mistake of holding it—of building rapport—and gave it a little kiss before passing it along. Unlike the others, I couldn’t watch this one.

Meanwhile, the boys were yelling at the crocodile, making it seem like a speedy end had not befallen this little guinea pig. I went back to the pen to see the crocodile snapping, but missing every time. He went for it no less than five times, and failed. Finally, the crocodile gave up, swimming away.

We decided that this little guinea pig had earned his stripes. We retrieved him from the water, and, cupping him in my hands, where he was trembling violently from cold and fear, we decided to keep him. The guide told us that he was injured, that he wouldn’t live—but in fact, he hadn't suffered so much as a scratch. And so we carried him out of the Musee Vivant, and he will live at the Marine House, with endless quantities of carrot shavings and lettuce. We named him Harry Potter—because he was the guinea pig who lived.


Blogger paulwhit said...

Cool story! Thanks for sharing =)

7/30/2009 2:11 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Oh, and we have since realized that Harry is a now, in order to prevent her from being gender-confused, we have named her "Harriet Potter."

She is the most spoiled guinea pig ever.

8/11/2009 4:22 AM  

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