Interview with Dr. Marisa Tellez - Founder and Executive Director of the Crocodile Research Coalition
At Agga, we’ve set ourselves the goal of helping educate the younger generations about wildlife species with a bad reputation. Luckily, we’ve found a valuable partner in Dr. Marisa Tellez. The founder and Executive Director of the Crocodile Research Coalition spent the past few years researching, rescuing, and promoting healthy human-crocodile interaction in Central America and the Caribbean. In her interview for our website, we learn a bit about her activity, the origins of her connection with crocodiles, and the challenges her extraordinary job brings to her table.
When and how did you know you would spend your life working with crocodiles?
I was about 15 years old when some girls at my high school told me I should watch a show about some Australian guy trying to save crocodiles. I watched one show by Steve Irwin, whose passion turned my interest from studying Great White Sharks into devoting my life to crocodilians.
My love for apex predators began when my dad bought me a book about sharks when I was five. This fostered my interest in apex predators, learning at a young age that despite being some of the most important animals in an ecosystem, the majority of them face extinction by humans due to the lack of education and false beliefs. I was about 8 years old when I decided I would advocate for them, to rebuild the reverence and interest of coexistence with ALL wildlife.
Crocodiles are not the most loved animal. What responses did you encounter from friends and family when you chose to research and work with crocs?
At first, they asked why I would want to study something so dangerous that just wanted to kill humans. My response has been that crocodiles do not seek humans, that is what you see in the movies. Hollywood and the news media have dramatized, sensationalized, and demonized these animals without the voice of educators and those coexisting with these animals. Majorities of cultures around the world revered, not feared, crocodiles. Like all of nature, crocodiles are a part of our culture and who we are. If we lose crocodiles, we lose connection to our ancestors and history. Thus, I choose to work with crocodiles to not only preserve their existence but also preserve culture and human history.
Tell us a bit about the Crocodile Research Coalition. How many staff and volunteers are involved? How many crocodiles are under your care? Your facilities…
The CRC is a small non-profit of passionate researchers who want to further wildlife conservation and coexistence with communities. Besides myself, there is Jane Champion, our Research Coordinator, Research Biologist Jonathan Triminio, and Program Coordinator Monique Vernon. We have several local volunteers, and the number of interns differs throughout the year. We currently have four crocodile ambassadors at our facility (one on a Steve Irwin show in 2003 when he visited Belize!). Our crocodile ambassadors are crocodiles who cannot be re-released into the wild as we have developed a successful rehabilitation program to get ill, injured, and habituated crocs back out into the wild. Gilly (who starred with Steve Irwin) was in captivity for decades and thus could not be released as he is very habituated to humans. Our other three (Aemon, Hamanasai, and Corozal) are blind and, therefore, cannot successfully hunt in the wild. The three blind crocs came to us emaciated, but with slow rehabilitation, they are all thriving under CRC care. Additionally, all crocs at our facility are target trained to build a relationship with caretakers and animals and conduct health check-ups weekly.
What does a day in your life look like?
Days at the CRC vary. We could conduct research at night, respond to a wildlife rescue call, conduct community outreach at a school or community event, analyze data, or mentor students.
How is your connection with the local community in your vicinity?
As I always say, conservation is not just about wildlife, it’s about people. If we want the long-term success of any conservation program or goal, the people need to be educated and involved to build pride and stewardship. I see the CRC merely as a catalyst when it comes to conservation. It will be the community that ensures conservation. Our relationship with the local community is positive as we have built good networks with local enforcement, school, village councils, and businesses. The community sees and understands that we are not just about crocodiles but that we care about the community as well through our various volunteering efforts with communities that have nothing to do with crocodiles. We are also constantly educating the community about the dos and don’ts living alongside crocodiles, and now we are finding community members spreading this education to new residents or visitors!
What are the main obstacles to a better understanding of crocodiles among humans?
The main obstacle we face is trying to squash the false beliefs and misguided facts about crocodiles created by colonization and now modern media. Once we can provide people with lost historical and cultural information and facts, we see people willing to tolerate living next to them. Additionally, we promote leaving green space” regarding development so crocodiles can have their space while people have there’s.
What can you tell us about crocodiles that will surprise most people?
Most people are surprised about target training crocodiles, similar to how you train your dog. Crocodiles are highly intelligent (it was thrown out a long time ago that a small brain = less intelligence) and can understand a name you give them, as well as cues like COME, STAY, SMILE (open mouth), etc.
Can you identify any improvement in people's awareness of the need to preserve crocodiles and their habitats?
Several years ago, when I started working in Placencia Lagoon, any crocodile someone saw would have been killed or asked by the CRC to remove it. Now, people love their neighborhood crocs, call us if there is a concern (and most of the time, all it takes is a little bit of education and people realize there is no concern at all), and are sad if they find out someone harmed any crocodile in the lagoon.
How do you think fact-based children’s books about crocodiles can create an impact?
By creating an appreciation of wildlife from an early age, people will grow up with respect for an animal, wanting to learn how to coexist with these animals. They will see that predators, like crocodiles, are not monsters and are not bad. How animals are portrayed in movies will not impact people who grew up appreciating crocodiles or being educated about them; they can educate others when the media sensationalizes a story. Providing factual information can further tolerance and coexistence.
What’s next for the Crocodile Research Coalition? What are your goals and plans?
The next step for the CRC is to finish our education facility in collaboration with Crocodile Encounter and make the appropriate steps forward in creating the Placencia Lagoon as a wildlife sanctuary. Additionally, we will launch a summer intern program in the Dominican Republic!
Dr. Tellez and the Crocodile Research Coalition consulted and cooperated in the writing and illustrating of the story “The Crocodile’s Hatching Day.” A portion of the profits from each item sold goes to the Crocodile Research Coalition, supporting their efforts to rescue and promote awareness for these magnificent creatures.
Help the Crocodile Research Coalition continue doing its valuable work by donating here.