What a Croc! Humans Form Close Relationships With Alligators and Crocodiles

PHOTO Full grown crocodiles have the strongest bites on the planet, more so even than a great white shark, with a force equal to the weight of a pick-up truck.PlayABC News
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A breathing relic of prehistory is alive and well. But instead of escaping into swampy grassland, it's ready for a seatbelt. For the passenger in the front seat of Vicki Lowing's automobile is considered by some to be a living dinosaur.

It smiles with the crocodilian toothiness known from a species that has outlived the Tyrannosaurs rex by some 65 million years. Longevity through asteroid hits, disease and catastrophic temperature change allowed its ancestors to see the rise of the human race. An ancient conversation with the forces of extinction still whispers and snaps in its biology.

The reptile's head looks around inside the car and, through a window, sees the fast-moving landscape outside. This is no ordinary road trip: for a crocodile named Johnie has called shotgun, and Lowing is enjoying the open road with her reptilian best friend.

"Most people do, they think they're instinctive killers. No, they're way more intelligent than that. I believe they're as intelligent as human beings," Lowing said.

CLICK HERE to see photos of Lowing, her crocodiles and more.

It's a relationship built as much on trust as it is from an astonishing leap of faith. For Lowing, a 53 year-old nurse in Australia, lives with three crocodiles at her home. She says the emotional bond with these creatures runs deep.

"You have to live with them to know these things. And I've stated that I believe they talk by telepathy as well. People think I'm crazy, I know, but [it's] just feelings I've received," Lowing revealed.

Full grown crocodiles have the strongest bites on the planet – more even than a great white shark - with force equal to the weight of a pick-up truck. But that frightening knowledge hasn't deterred Lowing. She took in Johnie fifteen years ago when the croc was a sick 5-week-old female hatchling left anonymously at her doorstep - a tiny orphan that could fit in the palm of her hand.

"She's mine and that's it. It's like adopting a baby," Lowing said.

Lowing quickly fell in love. She had a feeling, you might say, that crocodiles rock.

"I thought she was cute. They're all cute. Very snappy though, they do bite."

Boy and Crocodile: 'Like Brother and Sister'

Johnie, now a healthy teenager, is 6 feet long and will likely reach the length of a long couch. She has grown up with all the creature comforts of a decidedly domestic life, including sharing Lowing's marital bed.

"She'd jump on me and she'd go between me and my husband. And I think that's all to do with the bonding. And she seemed a little bit jealous if she saw me with my son or my husband or with the other animals, she became very close," Lowing said.

So close that Lowing even allowed the crocodile to sleep on her son Andrew when he was a child.

"Johnie would jump on Andrew's bed nearly every night. They were like a brother and sister," Lowing said.

Animal experts tell 20/20 there is no way to domesticate a crocodile. They are too aggressive, powerful and unpredictable. Ultimately a relationship like this may end in real tears – and not crocodile ones.

Lowing, who is now divorced, says the crocs were not responsible for the end of her marriage. But as much as she loves them, scaly reptiles who can take off a human limb with a nip are not exactly nuptial magnets.

"It's hard, I do meet nice blokes. And then when they do eventually come home and see I've got the crocodiles, they just run, they all run. If I could find a man, like another Steve Irwin, sorry Terry, but like a Steve Irwin that could take me and my animals and share the same passion, that would be wonderful," says Lowing.

Sharing that same passion is 10 year-old Samantha Young who wrestles alligators, the American cousin of the crocodile.

Coached with loving vigilance by her father Jay, it is a stunning sight in a startling place. This isn't the Everglades. This is the Rocky Mountains, and at 7,552 feet altitude, hardly a normal environment for gators.

But geothermal pools keep the alligators warm.

"Even though it is one of the coldest spots in the United States there's access to geothermal water, and the water is 87 degrees year round," Jay Young said. "Our alligators are warmer through the winter time here than the ones in Florida are."

10-Year-Old Girl Wrestles Alligators

Samantha's earliest memories are among the 350 alligators on her family's tilapia fish farm. Hers is a childhood landmarked with snow-covered mountains and steaming natural pools, where the wild things live always just beneath the surface. Samantha says her father introduced her to a gator girl's best friend at an early age.

"When I was two! He gave me my alligator PeeWee and I was playing around with him and stuff, and tapping him on the nose. Getting to know him," Samantha said.

And so began a most unlikely love affair between a little beauty and beasts with skin of rugged armor. Pets that also had an environmentally-friendly purpose: in the late 80's Samantha's grandfather came up with a novel idea for waste management. Call it going green -- extreme green.

"The reason we got our first alligators was to be garbage disposals for the fish farm, Jay said. "Every day there's a few dead fish on the farm to get rid of. Alligators are perfect for getting rid of dead fish."

CLICK HERE to see photos of Samantha Young, Jay Young and their alligators.

Revealing the gators became good public relations with curious neighbors, and good business. So the Youngs opened Colorado Gators Reptile Park - a family dynasty with Samantha leading the next generation into being ambassadors for the oft-misunderstood reptiles. The park also takes in abused or neglected pet alligators who were abandoned by overwhelmed owners.

Wrestling alligators isn't about sport or hobby, it's about caring for their health. Alligators by nature are not nice to one another. So Samantha and Jay work together to bring individuals out of the water, making sure each one receives proper medical attention for cuts and wounds.

"We're trying to help them, not hurt them," Samantha explained.

And they help each other. It's an incredible trust and respect Samantha has built with Jay as they share nature at its most primal, gaining insight into creatures who have existed on the planet long before the footsteps of man made their historic impression on the earth.

Yet Samantha and Jay are the first to recognize this is not the normal father-daughter bonding activity.

Alligators: Nicer Than Humans?

"It's normal for us!" Jay said, laughing.

The Young family's soft spot for tough-tempered animals also extends from an alligator snapping turtle rescued from a man's basement, to caimans, snakes and lizards.

Samantha and Jay don't expect us all to love alligators us much as they do, but their family does hope more people will learn to respect and appreciate these living fossils.

"They're much smarter than people think. They're probably smarter than us," Samantha said.

But are they nicer than us?

"Uh, only if you train them to be," Samantha said. "Nicer than some people," Jay added.

" Oh yeah. That's true!" Samantha exclaimed.

Click here to watch the full story on "20/20" and watch more on Vicki Lowing's life with her three growing pet crocodiles on Animal Planet's series "Fatal Attractions."

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