The Croc Whisperer

Paul Bodnar is a one-man reptile rescue mission

From outside, Paul Bodnar's Northeast Ohio home looks like any other comfortable suburban domicile. The attractive beige brick structure sits on a large landscaped lot. The homes surrounding it are also tasteful, adequate and well-tended, but the similarities end abruptly at Bodnar's threshold.

"I'm trying to turn my house into a jungle," jokes Bodnar as a lime-green parrot squawks overhead while flying through the two-story entranceway. Solomon is the male half of a pair of eclectus parrots that have free reign in the house. Maggie May is just as stunning in vivid red and blue feathers, but a bit shyer.

Solomon perches on a vacant baby's play seat. Five-month-old daughter Adelaide Catherine and wife Michelle are away for the day. "Solomon checks on the baby about once an hour," says Bodnar. "He likes to play with her toys."

The clerestory-style window in the front room is laced with an elaborate passion-flower vine, home to dozens of clusters of tiny eggs that will soon give way to caterpillars, each of which will become a chrysalis and finally a butterfly. When they flit around the room, Bodnar says, it's like art. There's nothing delicate about the creatures living in the basement, where Bodnar carefully controls the conditions to approximate a West African rainforest. During the day, it's dimly lit and 84 degrees. At night, it's pitch black and 79. The humidity is a constant 70 percent, just how the true stars of Bodnar's menagerie like it.

Down here, behind a double-locked door, large cages line the floor and walls. They house a Chinese alligator, a forest cobra, tree pythons, a pair of red-footed Venezuelan tortoises and crocodiles of all ages and sizes — Cuban crocs, African dwarf crocs, Nile crocs, Morelet's crocs, Albino Siamese crocs.

At first glance, none of the animals seems dangerous, and many aren't. The massive snakes are sensual in their fluid movements; they drape around Bodnar's arms and shoulders, hissing, their forked tongues darting in and out. The satiny feel of their skin, so supple and inviting, seduces me immediately. I understand the temptation that toppled Eve.

Then there are the crocs. The smallest of the baby crocs are hand-sized and darling, chirping at Bodnar in hopes of getting some food. But the larger ones, like the four-year-old Cubans, can be aggressive. They're trained for voice commands. so that they don't associate the mere sight of him with food, explains Bodnar.

Bodnar shouts a trigger word three times, and the crocs spring to life in a flurry of whipping tails, scratching claws and snapping mouths. It's a frightening display. The young Cubans are not more than three feet long, but they clearly are not to be trifled with. Bodnar doesn't flinch. Raising these beasts is more than just his profession, it's his passion. He loves the crocs, and all his reptilian housemates, like children.

Bodnar's journey began with humanitarian efforts. At 14, he ventured to the Navajo reservation in Rough Rock, Arizona, to do mission work with a group from the Willoughby Hills Friends Church. Bodnar was assigned to work with young teens. But some of the Navajo kids, raised amid abuse and alcohol dependence, reacted with hostility to the midwestern kid's good intentions.

"I was at the wrong place at the wrong time," he says, but won't elaborate. The incident scarred him, but true to the spirit behind the mission, he harbors no animosity. "The Navajos are tremendous people," he says. "I have the highest respect for them. They faced a lot of obstacles. Our genius United States government put them in the middle of a desert without any water or plumbing supplies."

Bodnar recovered, and despite the trauma, returned to the reservation the following summer. "You put the pieces back together and you're a lot stronger," he says. "That's why I can jump into a river full of crocodiles now. Once you've been there, it's not so bad."

The 1992 Lakewood High grad went on to study business and biology at Cleveland State. The latter major delivered him to the Cleveland Zoo, where he worked in the Rainforest building, helping to care for the animals. "That launched my experience into breeding crocodiles," he says.

The job also helped him discover what would become a lifelong passion. In 1995, Bodnar traveled with a group of students, Cleveland Zoo personnel and CSU professors to a protected wildlife sanctuary in the Caparo Forest in Venezuela. The group surveyed and studied rare turtles, primates, caimans and birds. Their field camp was a primitive tent affair, their daily diet consisted of rice and canned tuna. Bodnar dropped almost 40 pounds during the month-long adventure, but he gained first-hand knowledge of life in the jungle, where danger lurks beneath every footfall.

"A cut on your foot doesn't dry out," says Bodnar. "Because of the heat and high humidity, you have to treat any infection carefully and quickly. I had cuts and bruises and leeches that were four inches long. I got bit by a large black scorpion. The larger ones are less dangerous. If it had been a little white one, then I would have been worried. My thumb was numb for about three hours. I didn't mention it to anybody. People were kind of crabby by then and I didn't want to bring up another problem."

Then there were the venomous snakes.

"We saw two or three fer-de-lance a day," says Bodnar. He got to see the handiwork of the venomous vipers when a group of locals carried in a small boy who had been bitten by one. "His leg was swelled up to twice its normal size," says Bodnar. "It was a 15-hour drive to the nearest hospital. We had to use our own supply of anti-venom. We saved that little boy's life."

Trouble came on two feet as well. "Some armed guerillas came around wanting to know why we were there," says Bodnar, noting that corruption ran as wild as the animals. "One of the professors in our group had one of the soldiers as a student. That really helped. You never know. The police can take your money and run just like a bandit."

The jungle experience changed his life.

When Bodnar was 21, his longtime mentor Dr. John Gabler, founder of the Fort Rickey Zoo in New York, committed suicide. Gabler's widow entrusted Bodnar with two rare baby African dwarf crocodiles, and in a moment of sadness, something beautiful bloomed. Bodnar would become a stalwart protector of the endangered reptile from then on.

The federal permit Bodnar holds for handling crocs is one of only two in the country. He breeds and studies the animals, often working with traditional zoos and educational institutions, but colorful characters also pepper his address book.

"Crocodile circles are kind of small," says Bodnar, whose associates have included famed "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, Professor Zachee Denis Bitjaa Kody from the University of Yaounde in Africa and Uthen Youngprapakorn, who owns the largest crocodile park in the world, the Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo in Thailand.

Bodnar's base here in Northeast Ohio is relatively small compared to his Florida property, where he keeps more than 35 full-size and adult animals on 30 acres. That operation is adjacent to a 300-acre farm that is also dedicated to the preservation of exotic animals and reptiles. It's owned by yet another mysterious friend of Bodnar's. "He used to play with Alice Cooper," says Bodnar of his Florida associate. "But he's a recluse now. He keeps rare and valuable animals. Everything's fenced. He's concerned with liability. He doesn't allow people on his property. I can't even tell you his name. I guess it's No More Mr. Nice Guy."

Among all the animals, the crocs are Bodnar's favorites.

"Crocs have been around more than 200 million years. They're like a living link to the dinosaurs," he explains. "Most are on the brink of extinction because of human interference, hunting and pollution. I'm compelled to conserve them.

"Most people champion the panda or tiger because they're charismatic. I like the croc's behavior and looks. No other animal is as perfectly in tune with its environment. Crocs can smell blood from miles away. They have catlike night vision and good homing instincts. You can move a croc a thousand miles and it will find its way back home.

"Crocs are much more aggressive than alligators," says Bodnar, citing some 2,000 lethal attacks per year compared to one death per year courtesy of alligators. "I enjoy their aggressive disposition."

Most people are terrified of the huge reptile. But not Bodnar. Consider this recollection of collecting wild crocs with a group led by zoologist Dr. Adam Britton in Australia in 2003.

"We'd go into billabongs where there would be anywhere from one to 50 crocs. We'd be waist-deep in water. Sometimes a 6- or 7-foot croc would swim between my legs. It doesn't necessarily see you as a threat. It thinks you're a log.

"With paddles, we'd slap the water and scare the crocs into nets we'd set up the day before. Then we'd grab the croc in the net, untangle it and wrap up its eyes and snout." The crocs were then taken for testing and tagging and returned to the wild about eight hours later. "Australia was hardcore," recalls Bodnar. "We'd catch 40 or 50 crocs a night.

"Not a lot of folks can do wild-croc collecting," says Bodnar of himself and his cohorts, who come from every corner of the world. "You could fit them all into one classroom."

Bodnar returned to Australia in 2005 to harvest saltwater croc eggs with Grahame Webb, co-owner of Crocodylus Park in Darwin. The Australian "salty" is the largest croc in the world, growing up to 20 feet long and weighing more than 2,000 pounds. A salty can drag a water buffalo from the bank, drown it, lunch on it for a while and tuck what's left into some underwater tree roots for snacking later on.

Fearless? Bodnar was lowered into the swamp brimming with salties via helicopter. Then he carefully probed nests for eggs — 90 percent of which will hatch in captivity but only a fraction of that in the wild. "You risk your life collecting eggs," says Bodnar. "It's like going into Vietnam. You're chest high in water looking for eggs with thousands of crocs all around. When you're done, you get drunk with the other biologists and start the whole thing again in the morning."

Bodnar admits to being intimidated by dogs, but his rapport with his snakes and reptiles is nothing short of enchanting. He is gentle and adoring, particularly with the babies. "They're very endearing," he says as he pets and coos over one of his hand-sized specimens, many of which are critically endangered.

Bodnar pulls an unmarked bottle from a kitchen cabinet. It's filled with a black tar-like substance. He retrieves a spoon and pours a bead of the syrup into it, then proffers it to me. "Try this," he says.

It's very sweet and earthy and unlike anything I've ever tasted. It's also evidence that Bodnar's interactions with the people who live near crocs are every bit as interesting as the animals themselves. The thick syrup is honey that was harvested from treetops deep within the jungle near the West African village of Bahanga. He brought it back from five-week trip to the area in December 2007.

"They smoke the bees out once or twice a year to collect the honey," says Bodnar, adding that just climbing to access the prize is life-threatening. The honey was a gift from the tribe in exchange for blankets, mosquito nets, clothing, malaria medication and money. The trip was a reconnaissance to assess a proposed wildlife sanctuary, which would include Nile and African dwarf crocs along with an array of indigenous animals. The sanctuary is proposed as part of a general improvement to the Bahanga area, which was burnt to the ground during the 1958 Cameroon Independence war. The people were banished to concentration camps until 1971. Now just 10 families from the Basaa tribe live in Bahanga, which once had more than 750 inhabitants. There are no roads in or out. The only way villagers can trade their crops is by boat along the Sanaga River.

"Anytime they need to trade anything, they risk their lives," says Bodnar. "The Sanaga River is similar to the Ohio, but a little more rapid. They use tiny canoes that are just three inches above the waterline. They're easy to tip over. There are rocks and hippos and crocs in the water. They risk drowning."

Bodnar, naturally, bonded with the place and people.

"On the fifth day in the village, I had a vivid dream with three huge African stone heads that made a deep guttural sound like a humming. In the dream, I asked my friend Zachee what this was. He said, 'These represent the Basaa ancestors and they are welcoming you as part of the tribe.'" Later that day, the oldest woman in the tribe had a sudden urge to administer the traditional ancestral blessing to Bodnar and his associates. The ritual involved ceremonially ingesting the ashes of her ancestral people. "As I took the blessing, chills ran through my body," says Bodnar.

If the project comes to fruition, it will mean improved life for the people of Bahanga as well as a host of indigenous animals such as the endangered dwarf crocs, which are killed off as "bushmeat." The preservation of pristine rainforest is something few of us in Cleveland can understand, but hearing Bodnar's bejeweled description of this magical place brings us that much closer.

"In a tropical forest, everything is really active in the morning: butterflies, snakes, birds, bugs, monkeys. The sun is not as strong as you would think. Even in midday, it feels like it's twilight. The air is dense with mist and steam. Then from noon to three, everything takes a siesta. You can't find any animals. At about 6:30 in the evening, the jungle becomes active again. Flocks of 40 macaws will fly overhead. And jungles are very noisy at night. Everyone comes out and starts communicating and looking for a mate."

The Bahanga project is in its infancy. Organizers, including Bodnar, will have to amass academic as well as financial support. But, as evidenced by his fascinating life portfolio, Bodnar's just the guy to make it happen.

"I have a very high resistance to the word 'no,'" says Bodnar.

Until he can turn all the nays to yeas, Bodnar is staying connected to that remote corner of the world by providing ongoing financial support to a nearby orphanage. So he is at once a determined and fearless bushman, a keen biologist and a compassionate liaison.

"I don't have any fears in life," says Bodnar. "But I do sometimes fall into a bit of despair over things like poverty. The emotion of despair is sometimes what haunts me." He pets a baby Cuban croc that's less than a foot long. "These animals are what makes our lives worth living."

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