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How Australia's pet crocs become pest crocs

Some owners set them loose instead of bringing them to crocodile refuges. But the pet trade helps wild crocs, too.

Pet quality? Lucy Fraser takes a close look at 18-month-old 'Coochie,' a saltwater crocodile, in Brisbane, on Australia's east coast. Pet shops can sell crocs shorter than two feet long here.

William West/AFP/Getty Images

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She watches TV on the couch with him, rolls over on her back to get her tummy tickled, making squeaking-barking sounds to indicate her delight, and is uncharacteristically (for her species) pliant while being fed. Her meals consist of goldfish, defrosted rats, mice, and day-old chickens.

Now four years old and four feet long, Stampy, a female crocodile, was once someone's abandoned pet. She was found one night wandering the streets of suburban Darwin in northern Australia.

Stampy was picked up and nursed back to health from a dehydrated state by Chris Pebedy, who captures deadly snakes and other reptiles from urban areas for a living. Mr. Pebedy keeps nine crocodiles and one alligator on his property. Stampy is unusual for a saltwater croc.

"It's very special when you see a crocodile with personality," says the young "snake wrangler" who gets some 1,500 calls for help in a year. "Most are just deadly predators."

At first, Pebedy thought Stampy was quiet and unaggressive because she was sick, but he soon decided that the animal sensed that – as he puts it – her life was in his hands and submitted to being looked after.

While all crocodiles are dangerous without exception, among owners there is a preference for "salties" versus "freshies" because the former get less stressed in captivity.

Pebedy lives in the rural part of the Top End (the colloquial term for northern Australia), where he is allowed to keep the reptiles even when they grow to their full adult size, about 13 feet.

Most suburbanites, however, can only own a croc if it's less than 62 centimeters (about two feet) long – which works out to be a croc that's no more than 2 years old.

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