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article imageOp-Ed: The crocodile suicides — Inside the Thai zoo where things go wrong Special

By Ben Wolford     Sep 25, 2014 in World
Samut Prakan - On a recent Friday at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, a 65-year-old woman slipped off her shoes, clambered over a balustrade and plunged into a pit of hundreds of crocodiles. As workers rushed to distract the reptiles, the woman swam toward them.
Investigators ruled it a suicide. Similar incidents took place at the self-proclaimed "world's largest" crocodile farm in 1992, 2002 and possibly in 2012. The owner said he has invested in safety but that there's not much you can do if someone is determined.
Safety, here on the dusty fringe of Bangkok's sprawl, is relative. On a recent weekday morning, I drove out to the Samutprakarn farm to see what kind of a place this was and whether it still poses danger to those with depression. I wanted to ask the owner myself what measures have been taken and whether he thought he could do more.
It's dangerous to write about suicide, and it's dangerous not to. In an essay for the Poynter journalism institute, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz notes that while many reporters shy from covering suicides, the gap in coverage creates the impression that suicide is not a major public health crisis, which it is. At the same time, vivid descriptions of methods can inspire copycats.
"A reporter should not risk providing another person considering suicide with the details of how it can be achieved," she writes.
In the case of Samutprakarn, that risk is already out there. Thai media, appropriately, snatched up the story immediately. International media quickly followed. The method of achieving death at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm is well documented. What's not well documented is the farm's method of preventing it.
Like a slamming suitcase
I paid the 300 baht ($9) admission fee and gave my ticket to an attendant, who ripped it in half and let me through the gate. The grounds are lush, and the facilities are aging. The first thing I saw was a cage where anyone can have their picture taken with a tiger.
I followed a strange popping sound up a set of stairs. People were excited, and laughing. On a concrete walkway, several Asian tourists (I saw just one other Western-looking person while I was there) waved sticks over a pit of water. At the end of the sticks were strings, and at the end of the strings were fish heads, which swung above the gaping jaws of about 15 massive crocodiles.
When a fish head came close to a croc's face, the beast, more statue than animal, came alive with sudden grace. You are always caught off guard when a crocodile closes its jaws: It's coming, you don't know when, and when it's over you realize you never saw it. The teeth clamp with the force of a Tyrannosaurus rex. And there's just that understated pop sound, like someone slamming the lid on an old plastic suitcase.
I counted around 60 crocodiles in the general area. But there were other, larger ponds, and crocodiles are masters of disguise. The park claims to have 100,000 and, at one point, the world's longest — a nearly 20-foot monster named Tai.
Not far away, a woman in an apron scolded a small trousered chimp chained at the waist to a table. A sidewalk, marked on the park map as "Handicapped Crocodile," was lined with individual holding cells for "albino crocodile," "dark and tailless crocodile," "hook-tailed crocodile." A lioness dozed, as though drugged, on the paved floor of her cell.
Showtime
Under the bleachers of an 800-seat arena are bored trinket vendors and ancient, broken arcade games. You can shoot aliens or play air hockey as someone would have in 1980, but no one was.
Up above, within the arena, I sat down on a blue plastic seat for the 11 a.m. show. Two performers entered the pit, which contained 15 six- or seven-foot submerged crocodiles. In the center of the pit is an island where stunts are performed and where, late last year, a crocodile chomped a trainer's face. The crocodile, inexplicably, decided to let him go.
After singling out a reptile and bopping it about the face, eliciting several pops, they dragged it onto the island by its tail for the main act: sticking limbs and heads inside gaping mouths. The audience threw money into the water. The humid air smelled of sun-baking fruit. My heart pounded with anticipation. Otherwise, I froze; I didn't want to startle a croc and have to see the man get hurt.
A little girl yelled. But the crocodile didn't move. The man removed his hand, and at that moment the crocodile's mouth popped shut. Later they tossed money onto its tongue and then fished it out.
In 30 or 40 minutes the show was over, and I still had no idea how they did it.
Questions about safety
After the show, I walked off in search of the administrative offices. The farm's manager, Uthen Youngprapakorn, had told a local radio station that he has installed extra barriers and "other security measures" along the walkway where the elderly woman killed herself, according to the Bangkok Post.
A sportscar and a Mercedes sedan were parked outside the office, but when I went inside, a woman said the owner wasn't there. I left a note asking someone to contact me, but no one did.
It's true there are extra barriers where the woman killed herself. The area is a massive pond used for breeding. Aside from two women at a table at the entrance, who warned me not to throw food, there wasn't anyone else around. But it would have been impossible for anyone but a very small child to squeeze through the bars.
In other parts of the farm, especially where the tourists dangled fish heads, anyone could hop into the pit. Unless the park acts to prevent it, someone probably will.
When a 40-year-old woman killed herself at Samutprakarn in 2002, her stunned family said the suicide was planned, that she had talked about it. "She told me she would have crocodiles bite her to death," her husband told a Bangkok paper. "But I never thought she would really do it."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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