He was in the jaw of death, and the crowd cheered. The young Cambodian man, lying on his side, held his head inside the open mouth of a crocodile for 10 seconds before quickly withdrawing it to time with a loud crack from the overhead speaker. In slapstick, he grabbed his head as if he were in pain while his partner in the performance laughed at his side.
The crocodile show is one of many where man performs in harmony with animal, at Koh Kong Safari World in Koh Kong’s Mondulseyma district, near the border of Thailand. The zoo cum circus trains tropical birds, tigers, orang-utans and dolphins to obey human instruction to do impressive tricks.
Magnificently coloured birds race each other by peddling bird-sized bicycles, orang-utans are pitted against each other in a boxing ring, and tigers jump through fiery hoops.
Each show draws awe and energy from audiences – the acts are impressive. After all, how often does one get to see a parrot riding something that resembles a miniature skateboard?
But ethical issues rear their heads when trainers hurt the animals to make them responsive; such was the case with the crocodile show.
The Stars Wars-theme song blared on the speakers as two crocodile trainers ran out on to the show ground: an island in the middle of a shallow swimming pool that had about 10 pensive crocodiles in it.
The audience watched the show from a gallery above. Each trainer, armed with a bamboo stick, waded into the pool and tried in a few efforts to drag a crocodile out by its tail. When the crocodile was feeling stubborn, they would poke it in its side to grudge a response. They alternated between dragging and poking, dragging and jabbing, every now and then issuing an angry snap from the jaws of a crocodile.
One of the trainers, Heang Seriuthana, 28, whose stage name is “Charlie” has been training with the crocodiles at Safari World for three years. He proudly wears a white crocodile tooth around his neck.
“We poke them to make them open their mouths and to make them angry. We tease them, but with the new crocs we don’t tease them,” he said, adding that the baby crocodiles could be more dangerous and unpredictable.
Each crocodile is trained for two to three months before they are allowed to be “teased” in front of a live audience. The crocodile that opens wide for the head of Heang Seriuthana is the oldest of the nest, at 22 years.
Before he puts his head in the croc’s mouth he runs the bamboo stick repetitively over its top and bottom jaw in a soothing manner. He said this was to calm the croc. He would keep doing this until he felt the croc was "ready".
“I don’t get scared,” Heang Seriuthana said about the daring head-act. “I know about crocodiles, I know if they are too angry or not. If they are too angry then I won’t put my head in, but if they are relaxed, then it’s ok, I do it.”
While the men were in performance with the crocodiles, two Post reporters noted one gaping crocodile was bleeding on the inside of its mouth and another had an open flesh wound on its back.
“It makes me sad to hurt them. I love the crocodiles,” Heang Seriuthana said.
“But we must hurt and tease them because of the customers. We must make them angry.”
He said the animals were well fed. Each croc got two to three kilograms of fish or chicken, on Sundays.
Like Heang Seriuthana, many of the animal trainers, or discipliners, said they loved the animals they worked with, such as birdman Mr Chon.
He said it was because of his loving relationship with the birds that he was able to get them to do tricks.
“We learn from each other,” he said while stroking a colourful, healthy-looking parrot called Memy.
“They watch and learn from us and we learn from them.”
Koh Kong Safari World stretches out over 70 hectares and is home to more than 800 animals from around the world. A day pass costs US$12 for foreigners and $8 for locals. The gates open at 9am and close at 5pm. The first show starts at 9.30am.