“I’m bit!” Those were the first sounds that came out of my mouth after a 5 foot Morelet’s Crocodile took a nice bite out of my left hand. Are you wondering what was on my mind when all this was happening? Let me tell you, “Wow- that sucker bite two people in a blink of an eye!!!!! Amazing creatures they are!”
So, this is how it all began. I decided in 2007 that I was going to dedicate my life to crocodilian research/conservation. After googling some crocodilian researchers internationally, I decided to head down to Belize and volunteer for 4 months at a sanctuary. After handling crocodilians at a local wildlife sanctuary and the LA Zoo, I finally get to mess around with wild crocodiles… I was soooo excited!
One day the sanctuary received a call to take 2 Morelet’s Crocodiles from a Mennonite Farm and bring them back to the sanctuary. The Mennonite Farmers held these two crocodiles for 1-2 years trying to train them to be like guard dogs around the farm: they were going to build a moat around the farm and train the crocodiles to attack anything that tried to kill their livestock. What they learned was that they couldn’t change million years of evolution and tame these crocodiles. So they put them in lead septic tanks. I remember arriving to the farm to pick up these crocodiles- my heart just sank. Imagine yourself in almost complete darkness for almost two years with some clean water ever so often, but pretty much swimming in your own filth. That is what the crocodiles were going through. (The picture to the left is of one of the crocs, Bulldog- a croc with no teeth most likely to led poisoning). They were emaciated, one lacking teeth and the other practically losing its teeth.
We caught the two crocs, a 7-footer and 5-footer, and transported the crocs back down to the sanctuary. It was an 8 hour journey from farm back to the sanctuary. There were heavy rains the day before the capture, and on the way back from the Mennonite farm, the river was so high at one bridge that the bridge was washed downstream. So we transported the crocs on a fisherman’s boat across the river. Then we had to persuade a bus driver to let us on a bus with two crocs. It was interesting needless to say. When we got back down to southern Belize, it was very dark. We had the bus drop us off at a friend’s place, where we used one of their pick up trucks to take all of us back to the sanctuary.
The sanctuary is in the middle of the jungle- there are no lights, especially at 12:30am. So, what to do with the crocs? We can’t put them in the croc enclosure- its too risky because we wouldn’t be able to see if a croc was a the enclosure to let the newbies in. So, we put one croc in a enclosed kiddie pool, and guess where the other one went… in my cabin bathtub for the night!!!! By the time everything was organized it was 3-4am. Long day.
About 7 or 8am there is a knock on the door- the crocs need to be moved into their new enclosures. “Marisa, you got the croc in your bathtub?”, “No problem,”, I said. I’ve handled crocs this size (thinking it was smaller because of how emaciated it was, and how tired I was). I go into my bathtub with the Belize Wildlife Officer and the sanctuary director. I grab the croc…the moment I grabbed the croc I realized it was a lot bigger than I thought it was, and my grip wasn’t secure on it (I have really small hands!). I tell the director to grab the snout- they do. But then something happened- there was some miscommunication somewhere and next thing you know that croc fought the both of us and jumped and my life went in slow motion… I see the croc’s head turning towards me (my left hand was on its neck, and my right hand was on its tail region). The croc’s mouth is open and heading towards my left arm. I start pulling back my arm but next thing you know, I feel a slash on my left hand. I stop and look up as a moment of peace comes over me. Many thoughts run through my head. As the director from is trying to receive assistance from her bite, I take a deep breath to see if my pinky is still attached to my hand (as I’m also looking at the bloody mouth of the crocodile). I look it is still there. I take a deep breath and to evaluate if my pinky is still attached to my hand- it is still attached. That is when I say “I’m bit.” No one is paying attention to me. “I’m bit!!!!” At this point I let go of my hand right hand over my left and the blood starts pouring down my shirt. I get rushed into the sanctuary truck down to the Punta Gorda hospital. I was fine, I was calm. One thing I learned from my dad was to remain calm in these situations. The nurse took my hand, and she told me to look away. I realized what pain finally was when she pour alcohol on my bitten hand. Oh how I wanted to be bit by another crocodile!!!!!
So now I have a pretty awesome scar on my left hand (my hand modeling days are over!). But I not only have the scar to remind of that day… when I returned back to the cabin that day after the hospital, I was cleaning the blood off my bathroom floor. And in the bathtub I saw a strange object- a tooth! Apparently after the croc bit me, it must have hit the side of the tub with its mouth, knocking out a tooth! Given my Native American heritage, this was a spiritual sign for me- it was the day that the crocodiles and I became one….