Four rare crocodiles being kept as secret pets have been seized from the spare bedroom of a family home in the centre of Croydon.

The dangerous reptiles, capable of biting a man’s arm off, were found by chance in makeshift tanks by police officers at a semi-detached house in Waddon.

The officers, who were there on an unrelated matter, called in Croydon Council licensing officers who had the West African dwarf crocodiles seized.

Three of the females measured 3ft and were found living in cramped and dirty pond liners in an upstairs bedroom.

The largest one, which measured more than 4ft, was in such a bad condition, it died soon after being transferred.

The owner of the protected animals did not have a licence for them and is expected to be charged with four counts under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 and faces a substantial fine if found guilty.

It is understood he bought the four female crocodiles from a supplier in this country, although it is not known how they were smuggled into Britain.

There is a burgeoning illegal trade in the reptiles in Europe. They come from West Africa where their numbers are dwindling because they are hunted for bushmeat.

The animals have since been transferred to Birdworld in Surrey, where they are being fed on white mice and are happily sharing a large pond with terrapin turtles.

The protected reptiles were rescued by council licensing officers in January and specialists from the City of London veterinary service and were taken to a quarantine facility at Heathrow.

Rob Quest, manager of the London Animal Health Service, said he was shocked to discover it was rescuing crocodiles.

He told the Croydon Guardian: “We were very surprised to get the phone call and to discover there were West African Dwarf Crocodiles.

“We are usually called in to collect venomous snakes. We have collected caiman crocodiles before, which come from South America, but they are in trade whereas the African dwarf crocodiles are protected and are much harder to get hold of.

“I wouldn’t even begin to guess how they got into the country.

“I understand the conditions they were found in were not suitable, the cages were small and dirty. One of them died shortly after it arrived here because it was anaemic.

“Because of their size they will not kill a man but they are capable of a nasty bite.

“They have a twisting action when they bite down on something so could take big chunks of flesh out of you and a reasonable-sized dwarf crocodile could have your arm off.”

Councillor Simon Hoar, cabinet member for community safety, said: “This was certainly an unusual find, but it draws attention to the fact that people must follow the rules if they want to own these sorts of pets.

“Not only are there potential risks to the owner and their family, but these animals usually need very specific conditions to be kept healthy. This needs a lot of thought and planning.

“Anyone considering getting something out of the ordinary needs to check the schedule from the Dangerous Wild Animals Act before going any further.

“If the animal they have in mind is listed then they must contact our licensing team straight away for further advice.

“If you suspect someone might be keeping dangerous animals it is a good idea to notify the council, which can investigate in order to protect the animals and their owners.”

Dangerous animals must have licence

The council keeps a schedule of dangerous animals that need to be licensed if they are kept as pets.

The schedule covers many species, from breeds of spiders and snakes through to elephants, walruses and even Tasmanian devils.

It is an offence to own any of the creatures without gaining permission from the council.

Failure to obtain a proper licence can attract a fine of up to £5,000.

There is only one person registered in Croydon who has a licence to keep dangerous animals – venomous snakes.

Registration is approved by the council’s licensing team, who arrange a visit by a vet to ensure there are suitable facilities available to keep exotic and potentially dangerous creatures.

There is no option for a retrospective licence, so anyone considering getting an exotic pet must get the proper permission first.

Crocodile Fact File

  • The West African dwarf – Osteolaemus tetraspis – is world’s smallest crocodile, growing up to just 190cm in length
  • Often killed for food, their conservation status is currently “vulnerable”
  • They eat fish, frogs, crustaceans, and small animals
  • Their life expectancy is 75 years
  • Only 125,000 existed in 2002, though current figures are unknown