Every Sunday, Gilberto Shedden dons a tattered pair of leopard-print shorts, dives into a lake and splashes about in the water with his crocodile Pocho, to gasps from a large crowd of locals and tourists.
Shedden, 50, rolls the crocodile onto his back, cavorts about with him, lifts his toothy head out of the water and even kisses him tenderly on the snout.
“It’s incredible,” said Sam Van Everbroeck, a regular visitor to the show in the lowland tropical town of Sarapiqui, near the Atlantic coast. “I come every week to see it.”
Known to his friends as “Chito”, Shedden has earned the nickname “Tarzan Tico,” Tico being the sobriquet for a Costa Rican, as news spread of his croc-wrestling exploits.
But for Shedden, his exploits with Pocho are more than just a show. They demonstrate the friendship he has struck up with the crocodile, a reptile with a fierce reputation.
His friendship with Pocho began 17 years ago when Shedden, a fisherman, found the then two-meter (6.6-feet) long American crocodile lolling about in a river with a bullet in its head.
Shedden brought the injured crocodile home and nursed it until it was better. He took it to a lake near his house — but to his surprise, it slithered out and followed him home.
“That convinced me the crocodile could be tame,” Shedden told Reuters after one of his weekly shows.
To his family’s horror, Shedden began to wade into the water with the crocodile and found it was happy to let him stroke it and play with it. He even taught it to close its eyes on command.
“I had to sneak out at night because my family got worried,” said Shedden, with the same crazy enthusiasm of the late Australian “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin
Two years ago, Shedden showed his tricks with the crocodile to some friends, who urged him to go public with the act.
Now, crowds come weekly to watch Shedden, sporting just his shorts and a commando-style headband, frolic with the massive reptile in a small lake next to a restaurant he owns.
He rolls Pocho over repeatedly while rubbing the crocodile’s white belly. Pocho’s huge tail comes completely out of the water and crashes down on the surface with a loud slap.
After horsing around in the water, Shedden coaxes the crocodile ashore and gets down on all fours to nuzzle it, nose to snout.
Pocho is thought to be around 50 years old. American crocodiles, which live from Florida to Ecuador, are less aggressive than Nile or Australian crocodiles and live to around 70 years in captivity.
For the time being, Shedden charges $2 a head to see the half-hour show, and says he’s not interested in doing more than one show a week, given he also makes a living fishing.
“He’s my friend. I don’t want to treat him like a slave,” Shedden said. “I don’t want to exploit him.”