“If a woman loves a crocodile, she takes on its character.” Independence, strength, and intelligence may be some of the characteristics that this ancient Egyptian proverb is referring to, and qualities that have shaped my character since I was a young girl. Hi- I’m Dr. Marisa Tellez, the original author and founder of A Load of Croc. Figured, why not give you a background of the author behind A Load of Croc, as many ask- how does a girl from Los Angeles, California, surrounded by buildings, traffic and movie stars pursue a career in conservation biology of one of the world’s most archaic predators, starting a non-profit organization in Belize that pursues conservation, research and education of crocodilians and their environment while simultaneously working with local communities to pursue co-existence??? Well, here is how it all started….
At an age when most girls were playing with dolls, I was developing my knowledge of the world’s top predators. Not a day went by that I wasn’t imaging my future career as a leading apex predator scientist, broadening the world’s knowledge and respect for these magnificent creatures. After years of self-education on the world’s predators, I developed a great passion for understanding the scientific and evolutionary background of one of the oldest lineages of predators on our planet- the crocodile.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles- not even remotely close to the natural habitat of these archaic reptilians. I played soccer, and was part of the San Gabriel Twirlers, obtaining national and international baton twirling titles. I even got crowned Princess of my city, as well as Winter Ball Queen. So how did a girl like me get into crocodilians? I blame my father. I was five years old, and I remember I was getting excited to receive a present, hoping it would be a Barbie Doll or a My Little Pony. A very flat package. I opened it up and there were three books: a book on the American Civil War, World War II and Sharks. I read those books over and over again, especially the one on sharks. I fell in love with sharks, especially the Great White. To this day I dream of doing some type of research on the Great White- they are actually the reason why I fell in love with apex predators and they willl always have a special place in my heart. To this day, usual gifts from my dad are books (or random stuff like deodorant and razors) as the continual quest for knowledge should be never ending. So my love to explore, to be curious, to not have fear of the unknown, to educate yourself and use that education to better your community, and to always strive to be on top is a result of my father, and I thank him for this.
So, how am I able to deal with these big, rough, “scary” predators??? I blame my brother. I had the typical big brother who would chase me around the house to practice his WWF Ultimate Warrior moves on me. I couldn’t play or watch “girly” toys or movies. I grew up watching Star Wars and Rocky. My brother instilled in me “No pain- no pain!!!!!” I grew up with “Eye of the Tiger” playing in my head before a soccer game or big event. I grew up tough, which came in handy when a crocodile got a taste of my hand. The voice of Apollo Creed yelling “No pain” rang in my head at that moment. And this toughness also made me into a person who is not shy of speaking her mind, to never give up even when it looks like all the odds are against you (like Rocky against Ivan Drago), and if all else fails, to use The Force to restore Balance. The Never-Giving-Up character in me is because of my brother, and I thank him for that.
Now many people would see a crocodile or alligator and think it is scary and dangerous, and never even think about protecting it, or how to go about to teach others how to care for it. But I learned how to stand my ground, communicate, and teach others the wonders and beauty of crocodilians, squashing the misguided information and false beliefs and strive to empower people with the knowledge to further co-existence, and I blame my mother for this. Tagging along with her at the schools she taught or presided as principle, I learned how to effectively communicate with people from different backgrounds, ages, and difficult circumstances. I learned how to take a step back, to understand people from their perspective in order to communicate at the same level. I also learned how to be a leading role model, especially to take time in investing in the youth in your community. So I believe my ability to be able to communicate to people and my love in fostering the next generation of conservation advocates comes from my mother, and I thank her for that.
So, how did I get to where I am now? Its because one day I came to realize that scientific research and teaching were paramount in furthering the field of crocodilian biology and conservation. And maybe its just in my blood to do something that involves caring for all creatures, being a steward for the Earth, or doing some research that entails medicine. My father’s lineage is Apache, a family lineage that consists of medicine men and women (Claim to Fame: My great-great grandmother was the curandera (medicine woman) for Pancho Villa and his men). In a sense, maybe I was just born to do this…. and after all, after receiving a bite from a 5ft Morelet’s crocodile on my hand with a scar that would end any hand-model’s career, in addition to him breaking a tooth in the moment- we shared blood. In many Native cultures, one would say that this has solidified a unique bond between the animal and person, the animal and person sharing each other’s spirit. If my great-grandmother and grandmother were still alive, they would say I am now one with the crocodile; thus, maybe I was destined for this line of work…
So how did the Crocodile Research Coalition begin? Well, I knew I wanted to get my hands dirty in conservation, just not sit behind a desk or worry about tenure, etc in Academia- not for me! I had an epiphany one day after years working at a wildlife sanctuary and the Losa Angeles Zoo that I wanted to create my own sanctuary/research center in which crocodiles and their habitat were the focus, thus I knew going to graduate school could give me an edge in making my dreams come true (plus my mind for scientific exploration was not being currently satisfied at that time). So I went back to school and received a Master’s (2010) and PhD (2014) from the University of California, Los Angeles studying the interaction between parasites and crocodilians, publishing a book and various scientific publications. My work, knowledge and passion for crocodile conservation was quickly acknowledged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature/Species Survival Commission-Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG), and I was soon initiated into the CSG, as well as appointed as the Vice Regional Chair of Latin America for the CSG for my field work in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize which began in 2008. Nowadays, I’m in communication with various researchers regionally and internationally, and the camaraderie of the CSG is nothing but spectacular- I’m truly lucky to have such great mentors willing to invest their time and expertise to further my growth as a conservation leader, which I believe has helped in the early success of the CRC…
Ever since I first went to Belize in 2008, I knew I had found my home and that one day I would pave the way to live there and work with crocodiles. So after receiving
a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship through the United States government to research the health and biodiversity of crocodilian habitat in Belize, I soon called Belize home. Observing the difference my research and outreach was making in the local communities, my husband and I created the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) to further promote crocodile research and community involvement to assist in the conservation of crocodilians and their habitat.
So, I hope you enjoy reading this blog and the wonderful adventures that I have pursued as a researcher, mother, and now team member of the CRC! Enjoy!