Many scientists separate work and home life. But Dr. Marisa Tellez starts her morning by cutting up 350 grams of fish in her kitchen for Rick, a partially blind crocodile with a deformed spine she keeps in the yard of her lagoon-side house in Belize, Central America.
“He was only fed chicken before, which is like humans just eating McDonald’s,” Tellez says of the crocodile, which was previously kept illegally as a pet, the poor husbandry causing his back problems.
Rick wouldn’t survive back in the wild with his deformities and is too accustomed to humans. With the blessings of the Belize Forest Department, Tellez is caring for him at her home near Placencia, a beach town in the south of the country. Unlike Rick’s previous owner, Tellez, a 37-year old Los Angeles native, is an expert on crocs and the founder of the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC), which works to investigate and conserve the exotic wildlife of Belize and its fragile ecosystem.
Tellez is of Mexican-Apache heritage and says she comes from a line of strong women; her great-great grandmother rode with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa as his medicine woman. She has been fascinated with apex predators since her father bought her a book on sharks for her fifth birthday, and realized at a young age she wanted to advocate for the much-misunderstood animals.
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She went on to study zoology and cultural anthropology, before beating a path into the male-dominated field of conservation by specializing in crocodilian parasites for her doctorate. Having worked in Central America since 2008, she realized she needed to be in the field full time (Tellez readily admits she’s not especially suited to a traditional academic environment).
Belize was colonized by Britain in 1840—it was formerly known as British Honduras—and is home to Morelet's crocodiles and vulnerable American crocodiles, as well as a host of other exotic wildlife. In 2015, Tellez and her husband left the US to set up the CRC, following the invitation of a Belizean wildlife official. Her daughter, Maia, was born in Belize City that same year ("I literally was out crocin' the week before she was born," Tellez says).
Tellez is now a Vice Regional Chair for Latin America and the Caribbean on the Crocodile Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission, which classifies the conservation status of the animals. She works closely alongside conservation biologist Miriam Boucher, 27, from Calgary, western Canada, who serves as the CRC’s Research Coordinator. Boucher, who is hoping to study for her PhD soon, developed a new system for identifying American crocodiles, and has worked with Tellez for five years. She was recently recognized as a National Geographic Explorer.
Both women have dedicated their lives to pursuing their love of crocodiles (which was, like many younger conservationists, sparked by Steve Irwin), and excel in a field traditionally dominated by men. Their work in Belize evolved from field research to close coordination with the national government, filling a vital scientific gap. They are the only organization surveying crocodile species nationwide and working with the authorities to create the first conservation and management program for both species.
The CRC’s mandate goes beyond crocodiles and ranges from bird surveys to rescuing injured wildlife, be they manatees or squirrels. But crocs remain their speciality. A fortnight ago, they put the first satellite tracker on a crocodile in Belize, naming the creature TK-421, after a Star Wars storm trooper. The data it provides will improve knowledge of ecology and help to mitigate human-crocodile conflict, according to Tellez.
Close to Tellez’s house, Rick lingers in an enclosed pen. He is 1.4 metres and weighs 17 kilograms, but when Tellez found him, he was just 5.4 kilos. “He’s the size of a four-year-old but could be 10 or 15 years old,” she says. “We won’t know his exact age until he dies.”
But despite his physical deformities, Rick has maintained his mental faculties and is being taught “target training” by Tellez—essentially being taught to “come,” “stay,” and to go to water. The commands sound much like those given to a dog—though Tellez says teaching Rick the crocodile has been easier than training her own boisterous canines.
“Crocodiles’ brains are highly advanced,” she says. “They have the intelligence of a five-year-old child.”
Inside Rick’s pen, Tellez grasps the fish in a long pair of tongs, tapping the area she wants Rick to go, before praising him: “Good stay!” He follows most of the instructions, although sometimes hesitantly, before appearing to tire of the exercise and slinking back underneath the water.
Learning how to obey such commands is useful for captive crocodiles, she says, in case they need to be transported or examined by a vet. Despite crocodiles playing a vital role in the ecosystem, some Belizeans do not share the CRC’s love of the crocs, and they are often found mutilated or killed. For this reason, the CRC is heavily involved in community outreach and education to improve human-crocodile relations. It also runs a programme in local communities aimed developing the next generation of conservation and scientific leaders.
Tellez says colonialism may be a factor contributing to much fear and hatred of crocodiles. She explains: “The Maya [indigenous to Belize and other Mesoamerican states] had a very strong connection to crocodiles in their culture... but the British colonialists didn’t see them as an animal that was part of a culture or nature, but something that could be a source of profit, bringing in money through trophy hunting.”
The construction of army bases and farms meant crocodiles became vermin to be put down, or just shot for fun by bored troops. They came to be seen by the local population “not as an animal to live with, but something to make money off by killing,” Tellez says.
Under British colonial rule, locals were also excluded from land management. These factors “really distanced the relationship they had with the predators,” says Tellez, to such an extent that many Belizeans now don’t realize how much crocodiles were valued by their Mayan ancestors.
She adds: “That’s something that has happened throughout the world, where a foreign entity has come in, starts ruling, and the people that truly know the land and the wildlife do not get to participate in the management and conservation issues.”
Tellez also says the CRC is also constantly fighting the aggressive image given to crocodiles by dramatic wildlife shows on TV. “They can still entertain by providing the truth,” she says.
Now, the CRC is trying to reintroduce a healthier relationship with crocodiles—one that was lost through colonialism and mass media. Tellez says she adheres to the principle that “conservation is not about animals, it’s about people,” particularly stressing: “we do not preach.”
She says that her ethnicity is a factor in being able to build bridges with local communities but her US accent, marking her as an outsider, can sometimes be a barrier. “I’m not trying to make everyone croc lovers, I’m just trying to remove that false fear.”
Tellez leads an organization staffed largely by women, which is a source of great pride to her, particularly given the obstacles she has overcome. “Not only is it hard to be a woman in this field but to be a minority it’s even harder,” she says. “I’ve definitely been spewed some racist shit because of the colour of my skin which has made things harder, especially being taken seriously.”
For Boucher, having a female boss has also made a “huge difference” to her professional development. Working previously with a different crocodile-focused organization, she says: “I would usually get put at the back behind guys who were not as good as I was at doing the work.”
“A really big thing for women in this field is other women getting into positions where they can facilitate growth and opportunities for other women,” Boucher continues. “Because often we are put to the back because of our gender and because it’s a male dominated field.”
Boucher’s advice to other women trying to get into conservation is to be “determined and dogged” and “make yourself available and work your hardest to get the opportunities to really show what you are able to do.” Secondly, she adds, “network and get connected. There’s a whole silent army of really amazing women in conservation and science that are working tirelessly and quietly doing really incredible things.”
Belize is no exception to the massive threats faced by the environment. “If we don’t act now, the biodiversity in Central America and the Caribbean is going to be quickly lost,” says Tellez.
The CRC is playing a vital scientific and advocacy role in a corner of the world Tellez says has “been overlooked for many years,” and have shown this can be done by women just as well as men—or better.
Correction: An earlier version of the piece stated that Marisa Tellez's daughter was born in 2016. This has now been corrected.