When Gilberto Sheedon found the crocodile, it was near death and likely wouldn’t have survived without Sheedon’s help. In the years since, however, the croc had grown to massive proportions. So as Sheedon put his head near its open, tooth-filled maw, would the reptile care about their past – or just see him as another meal?
The story of the wounded crocodile actually began 27 years ago in the Central American nation of Costa Rica. Back then, the reptile that came to be called Pocho had been following his predatory instincts in search of food. Under the circumstances, however, his choice of prey that day was an unfortunate one.
Pocho had attacked a farmer’s cow, and the owner didn’t take kindly to the source of their livelihood being devoured. As a consequence, the farmer shot Pocho through the eye and left him for dead. And the croc most likely would have died if he had remained undiscovered.
Pocho’s fortunes improved, however, when he was spotted in the Parismina river by a fisherman called Gilberto Sheedon, or “Chito.” Naturally, Chito kept a respectful distance at first. When he returned in the evening, though, the crocodile hadn’t moved, so the fisherman decided to investigate further.
Chito realized that the reptile was wounded, and he couldn’t bear to see it suffering. So, naturally, he got some friends to help him take it to his lakeside home. “He was a little irritated, but he didn’t have much strength ’cause he was too skinny,” Chito told NPR’s SNAP in February 2014.
Inevitably, Chito’s family disproved of having a crocodile in the house, especially around the fisherman’s one-year-old daughter. So at their behest, he took the reptile outside – but he refused to abandon it. Instead, since Pocho was at death’s door, Chito continued to feed him.
“So I kept giving him food,” Chito told SNAP. “At first he wouldn’t eat it, but then he began to eat. I kept feeding him chicken until he started looking good.” Moreover, according to the 2013 documentary The Man Who Swims With Crocodiles, Chito even chewed up fish for Pocho.
As Pocho was recovering, Chito began trying to stroke his reptilian patient, who wasn’t always receptive. “I just wanted him to feel that someone loved him. That not all humans are bad,” Chito explained to the Tico Times.
Chito would even sneak away from his family at night to pet the crocodile. However, trust still didn’t come easily to Pocho during the three years that it took the animal to fully recover. But during that time, Chito’s daughter and second wife also came to love the croc.
Chito and Pocho, though, formed such a strong enough bond that they were able to swim together in the lake. Not only would the crocodile tolerate Chito’s presence, but he also seemed to enjoy it. Indeed, he appeared to respond when Chito called his name, which means “strong and muscular.”
It was with bittersweet feelings, then, that Chito decided to release Pocho back into the Parismina. “We took him in the truck and then left him there,” Chito told SNAP. “He wouldn’t go back in. He would stay right there. So I brought him back home.”
From that day forward, Chito would spend time with Pocho every day. However, after the croc needed surgery, the pair had to spend a few weeks apart while Pocho recovered. Thankfully, though, even time apart couldn’t break the bond they shared.
“Everyone was scared,” Chito recalled. “Since I had gone so long without going in the water, everyone thought [Pocho] would react differently. [But he] got close to my stomach and he stayed there with me. He didn’t react like the people said. In fact, he was even friendlier than ever before.”
It wasn’t long, of course, until the media heard about Chito and Pocho’s unique relationship, and the pair shot to fame. So how could a crocodile – whose ilk were thought to be incapable of emotions such as love and loyalty – display such devotion?
Roger Horrocks, the director of The Man Who Swims With Crocodiles, had a theory. He believed the gunshot that nearly took Pocho’s life had damaged his brain, effectively “reprogramming” him. And perhaps it even made Pocho capable of the new emotions he seemed to be displaying.
But whatever the reason, the pair became so well known that they began performing shows for tourists and locals alike. “When a lot of people came, […] I’d tell him, Pocho, we’re going to do a good show,” Chito said. “We’re going to give the best show this week so that people can be happy.”
And the pair certainly did make people happy. After all, Chito and Pocho’s amazing displays included many tricks that the two had choreographed together. For example, Pocho would roll in the water and allow Chito to ride on his back. Other crowd-pleasers saw Chito emerging from the water underneath Pocho’s head or putting his arm in the crocodile’s mouth. Pocho would even allow Chito to kiss him on the snout.
But one day after a successful show in October 2011, Pocho didn’t respond to Chito’s call. Chito explained, “I jumped in the water to see what was up and when I went to touch him, [he] was dead.” The crocodile had died of natural causes.
The town seemed to go into mourning, and Chito received condolences from around the world. “People were sending me letters, sending their regards and consoling me,” he told SNAP. And after a huge funeral, Pocho’s body was preserved and donated to a local museum close to Chito’s home.
“Pocho changed my life because when you work with animals, you get humans a lot easier,” Chito concluded. Pocho will never be forgotten, but Chito has since found another crocodile friend living nearby. “There’s less closeness now,” he admitted. “But with time, a little love, peace, patience for the animal… then you can achieve a lot.”