This month’s A Load of Croc is written by CRC Co-Founder and Executive Director Dr. Marisa Tellez and discusses the story and move of the crocodiles Gilly and Sam, as well as the infamous turtle Mad Max to the new CRC facility.
About 20 months ago I received an email from Founder of The Belize Zoo Sharon Matola re-introducing me to her long-time friend Carol Foster of the Savannah Guest House (SGH). I had met Carol and her husband Richard years ago when I was conducting croc research as an independent researcher and graduate student in Belize, and more recently when the CRC along with my colleague Shawn Heflick, helped the zoo capture their captive American croc named Brutus to give a health examination and we stayed at SGH. With a bunch of croc people staying at SGH, Richard was excited to show us the two crocs he had been caring for over the last 20-30 years. They knew his voice and came right up to the fence to get some pieces of chicken. These animals definitely illustrated a connection with Richard.
Unfortunately, Richard’s life was taken in August 2018. As time passed over the next few hard months, discussion of what was to happen to the crocs, as well as the Mesoamerican Slider that grew up and lived with these crocs, given these three scaly creatures were cared and loved by Richard almost daily. Due to various circumstances, Carol was not in a position to care for them. She spoke with Sharon about the future of these crocs; and that’s when Sharon sent the email to me.
Sharon had suggested to Carol about the crocs and turtle going to the CRC, given Sharon’s confidence in me when it came to crocodile husbandry, rehabilitation and welfare living in captivity. I of course was honored that Sharon and Carol felt that the two crocs and turtle could find a good home with the CRC. We were just finalizing details of 25 acres of land on the Placencia Lagoon for our facility, and discussed how we could move them once the land is finalized and funding for enclosures were provided. Finally, in April 2019 I got to meet CRC’s new wildlife ambassadors.
I arrived in the late morning from Placencia to SGH. It was a bit warm, and I realized I needed to wear pants as the botless flies were taking mini-chunks out of my legs. I introduced myself to the caretaker of the house (Carol was not in-country at the moment) and we briefly spoke about the history of the crocs and Richard’s interaction with them. I told the caretaker that I wanted to start target training them so that they can get use to me and that hopefully the day of the big move would be easy as maybe I could train them to go straight into a transport box. I headed to the gate- it was locked. I asked the caretaker for the keys and she was astonished I wanted to go inside. Richard usually stayed outside the gate but I told her with the training I want to do I need to go in. I opened the gate and took a few steps in- in the distance I see a wake of water and then a monstrous head moving towards me. This was the large croc. The crocs stayed a little distance away and I just began talking to it as I wanted the croc to get use to my voice. I brought a few pieces of chicken and left it on the edge. The croc crept closer. Then with the splash of chicken I hear a splash to the left of me, then a smaller head peeks up. The caretaker at that moment told me the larger croc was the female and the smaller the male. I asked their names but they were not given names, only the turtle – Mad Max. For training purposes I had to think of something. At that time I was watching the show Game of Thrones. Both of these crocs were pretty round and VERY well fed. The smaller one was overweight, shy, timid; the larger croc confident and bold. And then names for these animals popped in my head that reminded me of a couple in the TV show. I decided to call the large female Gilly and the smaller croc Sam.
Months past and I visited the crocs about every 2 weeks, restricting their diet only to fish and in smaller amounts. I always had to make sure I had some smaller pieces for Mad Max as she (Mad Max is short for Mad Maxine) would try to steal the training food, rushing up to my toes, or she would try to take the food from Gilly or Sam’s mouth. These three were a comedy show and quickly became the fav trio of social media posts. Check out the CRC YouTube channel to get a good laugh, like this recent video!
One concerning health issue I noticed in Sam was the lack of teeth… or no teeth that is. He also seemed very stressed around Gilly and it became very noticeable over the months training them that Gilly would steal Sam’s food or chase him off. It’s possible that the higher diet of chicken, plus the stress caused by Gilly led to decrease fitness in Sam causing issues such as the loss of the teeth. Lack of teeth in captivity is usually due to a higher phosphorous/calcium ratio which can be caused by a diet mainly of chicken. I was starting to wonder despite living in the same space for more than 20 years, if Gilly and Sam were not necessarily mates, but a pair WAY past the honeymoon stage and just barely tolerating each other. And I’m sure having Mad Max steal food wasn’t doing much for Sam’s health either.
Fast Forward to 2020. Covid hits and I can’t see Gilly, Sam and Mad Max for almost 75 days due to travel restrictions. I visit them as soon as I am able to in late May, and brought them some very good news! Thanks to The European Nature Trust and the Lister Charitable Trust we had the money to begin construction of crocodile enclosures on the new acquired land! My visits to the crocs became more frequent as I try to get them ready for the move. These animals have lived at SGH pretty much all their lives. I knew the move was going to be stressful and I wanted to do everything I could to make this move as smooth as possible. So I waited for some further donations to sponsor 2 friends and colleagues of mine from the IUCN/SSC-Crocodile Specialist Group to help with the move given their experience.
Flavio Morrissey is the guy who gave me the basic foundation to begin training the CRC Crocodile Ambassadors, as well as helped us develop our rehabilitation program for rewilding crocs that may have become habituated to humans. He is the true Crocodile Whisperer- he just speaks croc! Luis Sigler is one of the world’s leading experts in Morelet’s crocodiles (he wrote a book!), as well as has a lot of veterinary background when it comes to crocs. HIs presence would be immensely valuable for examining Sam.
Anyone who works in some capacity of wildlife knows that nothing ever goes to plan, and many times you need to have a Plan A – Z ready. The crazy hurricane season of 2020 delayed us greatly when it came to building the enclosures and Gilly and Sam’s enclosure was completed the day prior to the big move on November 25, 2020. The big van we were going to use to transport the crocs began having issues the night before, thus we had to downsize meaning the transport boxes built for the crocs could no longer be used. And with all the heavy rains, the land was so marshy that no 4×4 could pass through from the main road to the enclosure and local construction companies couldn’t help out with any tractor-style equipment to pull the crocs. And more worrisome, the pond at SGH was very flooded from the rain, which would mean having to capture Mad Max or the shy Sam (who we didn’t see the 1st or 2nd day we visited SGH) difficult.
When Flavio and Luis landed we headed straight to SGH so that they could meet Sam, Gilly, and Mad Max. Just 2 weeks ago shy Sam was coming out of the water, having a stand off with Mad Max over food. It was also during this time Carol came to see the target training session and asked why Gilly had a girl’s name. I was confused. Apparently there was miscommunication with the caretaker and Gilly is actually the male and Sam the female! It made sense given the behavior I have observed amongst both crocs. Gilly the large 10ft male croc will continue to be called Gilly, and Sam can keep her name. Easier for everyone!
During the first 36hrs Flavio, Luis and I spent at SGH we did not see Sam. I was starting to become concern. Did she get out? Did she pass away? Did she get trapped in her cave? She has not NOT shown up for a session in the last several months. I was starting to see how the original plan was falling apart in regards to transporting these crocs. During a session a day prior to the big move we captured Mad Max when she came up to steal some of Gilly’s food. I figured it would be best to at least have one successful capture.
On the morning of Nov 25, we opened up the gate. I had some food and began to call Gilly. Unlike the other day when he walked all the way up to the door, he only walked half way. Crocs are smart and he knew something was up. So I distracted him in trying to get food when Luis snared him given he wasn’t wanting to walk out of the gate. After controlling him, Flavio covered his head with a towel and then restrained his head. It took about 5 of us to get Gilly outside the fence and in an area where we could take measurements and give him a physical assessment. During this whole time I continued to talk to Gilly in a calm voice. He’s come to trust me and know me; I definitely broke his trust with this capture but at least wanted to reassure him all was ok. He never once tried to fight us and we were all amazed at how calm he was.
After securing Gilly it was time to look for Sam. She still had not appeared and I was starting to get very concerned. Five of us dived into the pond that had these little fish that didn’t just nibble, but bit you and of course they were going after all my scars that I had on my legs from the botless flies the days before. We swam around, poked in Sam’s cave- nothing. Where was she? That’s when Flavio said he was going to wake the perimeter of the fence. A minute after getting out of the water he asked us for some tape. I asked for what: “For a croc!”
Sam was well hidden and right next to a part of the fence that had some water. Her skin was dry and she had little fight in her compared to what I saw weeks earlier. When we took blood from her it illustrated she was anemic and her skin was a bit dry. It is very possible she’s been out of the water for a few days, thus one of the reasons that we hadn’t seen her the 2 days prior. It was then that I began thinking that Gilly and Sam, for Sam’s sake, needed to live separately for awhile or possibly for now on.
The transportation of the crocs down to the Placencia Lagoon was quite smooth, and the crocs remained calm in the vehicles. Upon arrival to the entrance to our land we began prepping for what would seem like an Iron Man Race challenge. Given we had no vehicle transportation from the main road of the facility to the enclosures, we strapped Gilly to a kayak and pulled (by running) the 300lb 10ft Morelet’s croc to his new home over a mile. Needless to say it was quite a workout! Gilly is currently adapting to his new home that we have named the Thunderdome, along with Mad Max. As you can imagine, Gilly is being very shy with us right now and barely pokes his head up long enough for us to see him. It may be a few months before he’s acclimated and willing to trust me and the CRC team again.
As for Sam, she stayed at my house in a juvenile croc pond for a few days to get rehydrated and be stress free of any bullies. My team built her an enclosure within 48 hours and after being in her “intensive care unit” for three days at my house, we moved her to her new enclosure (via wheelbarrow). It seemed the days of soaking in water and staying in a stress-free environment helped her gain back some of her strength as she had quite some fight getting her out of the juvenile emergency rehab pond. Upon release she seemed quite content with her new bachelorette pad.
The build up to the week and the day for the big move for Gilly, Sam and Mad Max was one that led to many sleepless nights, countless hours of networking, preparation and organization, as well as much emotion. These animals are not just two crocs and a turtle; these animals connect family, friends and colleagues to a wildlife filmmaker who was a champion for wildlife and conservation in Belize, and internationally. These animals not only have their own story, but tell the story and hold the memory of Richard Foster and the CRC will do their best to love and care for these animals just as Richard once did.