Raising Funds for Phineas
**Warning - Some of the following images/videos contain graphic content**
The following is a story of an American crocodile named Phineas, who is incredibly special to our hearts. He has had a rough time at life and is now permanently in our care due to continuous problematic behavior. His story is intense, but it is important that it be told, as we need to raise awareness and support to get him a permanent home he deserves. Thank you for taking the time to read his story!
In early 2017, an 8-foot American crocodile, named Phineas, took a resident's pet dog while it was roaming around the water's edge on Ambergris Caye. Out of revenge, the dog owner's neighbors captured Phineas, tortured, and attempted to end his life. The only thing stopping them from killing Phineas was the threat of a neighbor calling the police, as killing a protected species is an illegal act, forcing these people to release the wounded crocodile. However, before releasing him, they failed to remove the tape and wire that secured the jaws shut. A concerned member of the public shared the details of this incident with us, triggering us to spend months of late nights searching for him, but sadly, without success.
A few months after this incident was reported to us, a member of the public sighted Phineas. He was floating nearly lifeless with his mouth still taped shut and appearing to be on death's door. Chris and I responded immediately. With how emaciated he was, Chris decided to jump into the water, grabbed onto him, and walked with him in his arms to shore - Phineas only very weakly attempted to thrash. The wound on his neck stank of death and once we were able to clean it, we saw the full extent of the injury - the wound was so deep into the neck, you could fit your whole hand inside it, and by a miracle the vertebral column was spared. He had also sustained an injury to his right eye, permanently blinding it.
He was transferred to our adult crocodile holding pen where we freed him of the tape and wire that had for months left him unable to open his mouth, got some food into his stomach, cleaned his wound and prayed he would make it through the night. Crocodiles are incredible beings - capable of healing from wounds that would kill most all other creatures, and because they are ectothermic reptiles, can go months without eating, because of this he miraculously made it through the night.
Though crocodiles can go long periods without eating, there is a certain point where their system shuts down and they no longer have the will to eat, usually this accompanies serious injuries and illness.
Phineas was at this point so for a few weeks, we had to force-feed him, to get him to a point where he could put on weight if he had any chance of healing. Once he had more body mass and energy, we had our local vet, Dr. Ines Ilic, come check on the wound, provide additional cleaning, and with the help of many volunteers and a local anesthetic, she spent three hours stitching the wound closed.
After a round of antibiotics and 5 months of rehabilitation, Phineas was a beautiful, healthy crocodile again, eating and hunting on his own, and very fearful of people. With that, the decision was made to approve him for release. He returned to the wild and we hoped to never have to see him again, but sadly that was not the case.
About a year-to-date from his initial capture, he was caught once again by a San Pedro resident for trying to take another dog in the same neighborhood where he was nearly killed in one year prior. We were heartbroken to see him in this area again, and also to see that his whole body showed signs of being underweight, so for a second time he was moved to the adult holding pen so we could monitor his eating habits. After only a short time, he put his weight back on once again by hunting the food provided to him in the holding pen. We saw no reason why he would be struggling in the wild. Since no issues were noted and he still retained his fear of people, as he would hide at the sight of any human when one approached the habitat, he was approved for release. It is crucial to the release criteria that a crocodile retains his natural fear of people, especially for this crocodile who seemed to have a taste for man's best friend. He was healthy and released to live wild and free, and again we hoped to never encounter him again, but unfortunately it was not the case.
A few months later a phone call came in at 3am - a resident was woken by their dog barking, alarming them of a 8.5-foot crocodile climbing up the stairs of their veranda to get at their dog. Chris informed the residents to safely get their pets indoors and flew out of bed and drove into town to find this crocodile. When he arrived, the crocodile had fled the area, Chris searched for 2 hours, but did not have any success finding him. He talked to the residents about keeping their pets indoors during the evening hours and told them to call if they had anymore sightings of this croc.
The very next night, a 12am phone call woke us again - a report of a similar sized croc as the night prior was walking down the street of a neighborhood a few streets away from the previous night's call, even farther from the lagoon and he was crawling under people's homes. Chris geared up and set out, determined to find this croc. With the help of some helpful San Pedranos, Chris was able to locate the culprit and safely secured him. That was when he noticed the scarring on the neck that belonged to our dear old friend, Phineas.
Now 1:30am, Chris transferred Phineas to the holding pen while we worked through the best course of action for this very problematic crocodile. After a few day in holding, Chris and I noticed a very different set of behaviors than we had seen in previous times of temporary housing. Phineas no longer feared people. In fact, when he heard people coming up to the fence - specifically women (myself and other female volunteers) - he emerged from the water and stood defensive at the fence staring at us. Our best theory is that in the time between the last release and this capture, someone - likely a woman - was feeding him or doing something bothersome that has made him particularly sensitive to females.
With this new information, we called the Belize Forest Department, the governing agency which we are permitted to work under, and informed them of the problematic behaviors observed from this crocodile. While we strive to keep all animals in the wild whenever possible, with Phineas' dog-focused behavior that frequently brought him close to people's homes, even when full grown adults where present, and his newly defensive behavior in the presence of women, the decision was made to place Phineas in captivity for his own safety, as well as they safety of the community.
It is important to note how unnatural Phineas' behaviors were. A wild American crocodile usually fears people, tending to flee at their sight or if he/she feels people are too close. They do not see man as a food source, as their food is typically much smaller, i.e., fish, shrimp crab, snakes, raccoons, etc. While crocs may occasionally take a dog, it is usually just because the opportunity presented itself while a dog was roaming freely on its own near the edge of the water. What is not normal is routinely seeking out dogs as a primary food source even when man is present, like Phineas has become accustomed to.
It is also important to mention that Phineas' problematic behavior was not his fault. A crocodile does not know the difference between a raccoon and someone's beloved pet, which is why it is important to follow some basic rules to keep you and your pets safe - for the crocodile's have lived here long before us and don't plan on leaving just because people built homes in their mangrove habitat. It important to understand that crocodiles, being opportunistic hunters, tend to go for easier meals if possible. If there is a chance to eat medium dog that can sustain them for a week to a month rather than spending hours hunting for fish each day, they will likely take the quick and easy method that will sustain them for longer at a lower energy expense. Because of this, it is incredibly imperative to be a responsible pet owner, not only for your pet, but also to keep our wild animal population from seeing human-habituated areas as a source of food.
We love Phineas and while we would prefer him live in the wild, we understand that it is just too dangerous based on his patterns of behavior, so we are striving to provide him with a comfortable permanent habitat for him to live out his life. We are currently fundraising for a habitat for Phineas here on Ambergris Caye on our property so we can work with him on a daily basis, eventually working towards him becoming and educator and ambassador for his species. Because we live on higher ground, it is not as simple as digging a hole and fencing it off. It will need to be concrete with mechanical, biological, and UV filteration. Though it will be a concrete habitat - will still want it to be as natural as possible, so we are basing our designs on Aquascapes' ecosystem pond concepts, which replicates mother nature.
A quote for the habitat construction is pending and will be posted as soon as possible, but it is expected to exceed $50,000 bzd in total. Living on an island is not cheap, but we are not giving up on Phineas. If you are able to make any contribution, big or small to help Phineas get his forever home, you can make a tax US deductible donation here.
Thank you to all who have supported us in the past and present, who share our stories, and who believe in the future of our work. For more information about ACES, our projects, and animals, please contact info@ACESbelize.com.
Phineas, now nearly 10 feet in length, very healthy, and with a completely healed neck (there is only minimal scarring visible, as seen above), lives with Chris and I in the temporary holding pen on Ambergris Caye and is patiently awaiting construction of his permanent home.
Written by Christina Manzi, ACES Education and Project Coordinator