AS Andy Johnson stroked his crocodile Cuddles, he suddenly found his thumb clamped between 64 lethally serrated teeth in a mouth 12 times as strong as a lion’s.
It turns out Cuddles doesn’t live up to her name, but Andy still has no regrets about having her living in his back garden – and he’s not the only one.
Earlier this year, Reece Oliver, 28, defied neighbours’ protests to have a 400 metres squared enclosure for his Canadian puma and two African lions built at his home in Steeley, Nottinghamshire.
Locals claimed puma Rogue and lion cubs Rocky and Rora were “unsafe”, but Reece insists they’re misunderstood – even if he declines to get too close to Rogue as he has the scratches to prove how rough the puma’s play can be.
In fact the big cat could kill an animal four times its size, while Rocky and Rora may seem cute at the moment, but in two years’ time they’ll be twice the size of Rogue – male Rocky could reach 30st.
Reece is one of the 218 people who have a Dangerous Wild Animal licence in the UK, which gives him full permission to keep the creatures.
Other have been issued to someone with four venomous lizards in Scotland, and a man with a large collection of wild animals in Cornwall. Those include a clouded leopard, which escaped from his enclosure and killed a sheep.
Some of the licences are handed to farms breeding wild boars or ostriches, but a large number are for private individuals.
Charities including The Born Free Foundation are opposed to wild animals being kept as pets, arguing they aren’t suited to life in captivity and it could cause them physical and psychological problems.
These animals’ natural instincts can be harmful and won’t be curbed either, so what’s it like to have a wild animal living happily in your back garden? We found out…
‘The croc took my fingers last week’
You might presume a pet called Cuddles was a kitten or maybe a rabbit.
But this Cuddles weighs 35 stone, is covered in scales and could kill you in an instant. It’s a Nile crocodile, one of 12 crocs kept by Andy Johnson, 49, in a large converted shed on his farm in Cambridgeshire.
“Cuddles isn’t that cuddly. She took my fingers a few weeks ago,” he says.
“Her tooth went straight through my thumb nail and she took a chunk out of this finger. If she’d bitten my wrist, she’d have had my hand clean off.”
I warily eye Cuddles, as she devours half a chicken carcass.
“You mustn’t get nervous. You wouldn’t ask Lewis Hamilton if he got nervous,” Andy says, before swiftly telling me how long it would take Cuddles to kill me.
“She could split you in two. She’d just grab you in the middle and then go into a roll and throw a bit of you each way. Swallow one bit, and come back for the other half.”
Crocs always have an eye on you
- Crocodiles can sleep with one eye open, apparently so they’re always alert
- They have the strongest bite ever recorded – 12 times as fierce as a lion
- Even so, the muscle that keeps their jaws open is so small humans can keep a croc’s mouth shut with their bare hands
- They can eat a man in one gulp because they don’t chew
- The death roll is real – crocs drown victims, then violenty roll them in water so their limbs are ripped off and they’re easier to eat
‘We bought a croc instead of an incinerator’
He insists, however, that Romeo, Cuddles’ brother, is a big softie. “He loves the back of his leg being tickled. He can’t reach that bit. It keeps him calm,” Andy explains.
“All the skin around their belly and legs is soft. And obviously they are cold, which is a real shock at first, especially if you’ve worked with warm blooded animals all your life.”
Andy is a fourth-generation farmer, which is why he first got into crocodiles.
He used to produce a lot quail, used to feed birds of prey, and there’s a rule stating you need to be able to destroy any birds that get ill and need to be killed.
Most farmers use an incinerator – but not Andy.
“We decided to use a crocodile instead,” he says, revealing he bought one from a Belgian dealer.
Andy won’t go into specifics, but crocs vary in cost from £200 to £2,000 depending on rarity.
He became fascinated by the animals after seeing them on holiday, aged 19, in Florida, USA, with his now wife Tracey.
‘They’re cheap – they don’t eat for six months’
He says they are remarkably easy to look after and – crucially – surprisingly cheap, because they eat very little.
“Romeo can go 18 months without eating. They are 98% efficient. They won’t eat at all for six months in the winter,” he explained.
“These eat 1kg at a time, but only six or seven times a year.”
The main cost is heating their shed, which includes a pond in the reptiles use to cool off.
The crocodiles have become quite the local celebs, too.
Andy would never charge anyone to see them, but people can get a glimpse of them when they pop into the farm shop, Johsons of Old Hurst.
Of course, not everyone is so enamoured by the animals – he’s had complaints from neighbours.
“But that’s the British nature – in Britain they always want to knock somebody doing something successful or doing something different,” he says.
Kelly and Seb Jones
‘Big cat eats chicks like penny sweets’
Servals snare prey with brutal leaps
- Although the biggest serval cat will weigh about three stone, they can take down huge prey like antelopes
- They can jump at high as nine feet in the air
- They use their jump to snare prey, landing with all their weight on their target then biting them on the neck
- They have the biggest ears of any cats, the equivilent would be humans having ears the size of dinner plates
- Servals are the most successful predators of any cats, catching four times as much prey
Make no mistake: a serval cat, native to sub-Saharan Africa is no ordinary, domestic feline – for one thing they eat whole rabbits and chicks rather than cans of Whiskas.
Seb’s serval cat Anubis munches the chicks, which are dubbed “penny sweets”, even though they’re considerably more expensive at £1 a pop.
“The most nutritional and natural food you can feed him is whole prey – eyes, brains, heart, lungs, blood, organs, bones and fur are packed with nutrients and natural proteins that these cats bodies need,” Seb explained on Instagram.
Anubis’ food bill comes to £20 a week.
Seb and Kelly bought Anubis in 2017, and he lives with the couple and their two children at their house in Oldham[/caption]
‘He’s docile like a dog’
Seb and Kelly bought Anubis in 2017, and he lives with the couple and their two children, Sienna, six, and Brandon, 12, at their house in Oldham, Manchester.
Seb is particularly proud of the cat and has even set him up an Instagram, which proudly declares he is “The Brad Pitt of the cat world”.
The doting cat dad even has a tattoo of Anubis, proudly baring his fangs, on his hand.
“We love sharing his life online. The general reaction when people spot Anubis via his social media account is shock,” Kelly previously said.
Anubis is about five foot high when he stands on his back legs, and servals are classed as dangerous. They have been known to attack humans – but Seb and Kelly have no worries about Anubis.
“Their large size and leopard like markings scream danger to the uneducated,” says Seb. “But once you overcome the shock factor of this beautiful animal you realise it’s docile in nature. He’s very laid back, almost dog like, very comfortable in the presence of children, slow and careful with his movements.”
That said the family never leave him alone with their kids, with the cat spending a lot of his time in a large enclosure in the garden.
‘The zebras took out a rhino, they’re aggressive’
“I am known as the mad zebra lady,” says Terri Hill, 44, proudly.
The first two zebras she got came from Dublin Zoo, who needed to rehome them after they attacked a rhino.
“They were disruptive,” Terri explains.
Bailey and Murphy were volatile, apparently a trait when it comes to zebras.
“They all have an aggressive streak,” she says. “People think they are really pretty, and they are – if I had a pound for every time someone said, ‘Aww, they’re like a stripy pony’ I’d be very wealthy.
“But they are very aggressive. Their fight or flight instinct is huge.”
Most of the time the pair are in a two-acre paddock surrounded by an 8-foot-high fence next to Terri’s house near Bristol.
The Dangerous Wild Animal licence states fences have to be at least six foot, but Terri knew that wouldn’t be enough.
“I’ve had one zebra be startled by something and run and hit the fence at 7-foot,” she said.
‘One kick from them would break my leg’
Another ran full force into a telephone pole which was concreted into the ground and moved in four inches.
“If a zebra was to kick me, it’d probably break my leg,” she says.
“If I was to corner a zebra and they decided to fight, they fight until they think you’re dead. They kick so hard and their bites are some of the toughest bites in the zoo. They are really tough cookies.”
Considering how aggressive they can be, why did she agree to look after Bailey and Murphy nine years ago and then take on two more, Tori and Kelsie?
Terri has always been fascinated by them, specifically how different they are to horses.
She runs a livery yard, where people who own horses but no land, keep their animals, and she’s done a lot of research into zebras.
So much so she now advises zoos on zebra genetics and breeding.
Her main advice is that keeping wild animals isn’t a decision to take lightly.
Before getting Bailey and Murphy,Terri spent a long time attending workshops and talks put on by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She’s also stumped up £40,000 for fencing and stables.
Zebras have each others' backs
- Zebras are much more vicious than horses – they can kick each other to death and have killed lions – and if one is under attack, others form a semi circle to protect it
- They produce many noises, from braying like a donkey to squealing like a pig
- They can run at a mind-boggling 40mph and weigh in at 60st
- A group of zebras is known as a dazzle, because that’s how a herd looks when it runs
- They’re actually black with white stripes, and each zebra’s markings is unique
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Her “long-suffering” partner Drew, an ex fire-fighter is fine with the zebras, and the couple also have have Somali wild ass, and Nene, which are Hawaiaan geese.
She has no interest in showing off her zebras to the public, or making any money out of them but says the cost and hassle is well worth it.
“I can seem them out of kitchen and office window,” she says. “And I just love looking at them. I love looking at their stripe patterns, their movements.”
Just don’t let them loose with a rhino.