A crocodile was found roaming the streets of Melbourne, Australia, late on Christmas Day. Since most of the continent separates the city from the reptile's natural habitat, there is absolutely no chance it got there on foot. Instead, the stray was probably a lost pet, illustrating how bad choices for household companions are posing a menace to the wider environment.
When Melbourne police received a call that a 1-meter-long (3-foot) crocodile had been sighted at 8.30pm on Christmas Day on a suburban roadway, they probably thought someone had been hitting the celebratory sherry a little too hard. More tactfully, Acting Sergeant Daniel Elliott told ABC News, “I thought it might have been a statue that had been placed there.” Other officers thought someone couldn't tell the difference between one of Australia's most powerful predators and an unusually large lizard.
However, once prevailed upon to investigate, the police found what could not be mistaken for anything other than a living crocodile, although they did initially misidentify the freshwater species (Crocodylus johnsoni) as a member of the larger and more fearsome saltwater variety. The beast is a juvenile; adults grow to 3 meters (10 feet) and can weigh 100 kilograms (220 pounds).
The officers decided discretion was the better part of valor, and called in local reptile catcher Mark Pelley, who managed to get the escapee into a box, surviving several unsuccessful biting attempts in the process.
Police requested anyone missing a crocodile to call Crime Stoppers, but now have four people disputing ownership.
Until more information comes to light, we can only speculate how the crocodile came to be hanging loose outside the closed Heidelberg Heights Medical Centre. The possibility someone decided to go exotic with their gift this year, but the recipient was so unimpressed they simply let their new pet go, can't yet be ruled out.
The event highlights the serious problem of people buying inappropriate animals, or even plants, which later get released into the wild. Just three days before the crocodile's discovery, an analysis of the genetics of lionfish, published in PeerJ, helped shed light on one of the ocean's most damaging invasive species. It is thought lionfish reached the Atlantic Ocean from their home in the Indo-Pacific when particularly stupid tropical fish fanciers or aquarium traders released the fish near Miami. Once established, they create a disaster for native species that no one knows how to stop.
Nearby, at least 30,000 Burmese pythons are growing to terrifying sizes and depleting the mammal and bird life of the Everglades. This disaster is probably a consequence of owners who, having acquired a pet that grew beyond their capacity to manage, simply let it loose.
At least this crocodile won't be breeding.