Wild animals such as crocodiles, raccoons, rodents and stray domestic animals have been an environmental and health problem that is becoming more of concern to residents and authorities alike on Ambergris Caye. Residents are seeing crocodiles roaming in residential areas, rodents and raccoons digging and turning over garbage cans and stray dogs and cats feeding on discarded food waste. But what is contributing to this behavior in these wild and domestic animals? What are the environmental and health issues relating to the change in the behavior of these animals? What are authorities doing to address the problems and what can residents do to minimize the problems?
In speaking with Chief Forest Officer Wilber Sabido, humans are encroaching on the natural habitat of these wild animals. “One of the main reasons we are seeing crocodiles and other wild animals more and more in residential areas is that we have slowly invaded their natural habitat. When we move into what was their natural habitat then these animals have no other option than to struggle to survive,” stated Sabido.
In an interview with Animal Behaviorist and Executive Director of the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (ACES) Cherie Chenot-Rose, Rose stated that not only are humans encroaching on the wild animals’ natural habitat but irresponsible practices are to blame as well. “What compounds the problem is that we are feeding these animals directly and indirectly. These animals are now accustom to an easy meal, and the minute they don’t get it they will feed on discarded food found around them or they will move into residential areas and feed on domesticated animals.”
But this is just the beginning of the problem. Crocodiles are apex predators (on top of the food chain) and they feed on smaller animals such as fish, rodents and raccoons known to be commonly found in the surrounding area. When crocs adapt to easy meals like garbage, instead of hunting for wild prey, an imbalance in the ecosystem is created. “This explains why we are seeing more rodents and raccoons in the area, this is a perfect example of an imbalance in the ecosystem” stated both Chenot-Rose and Sabido.
The overpopulation of rodents and raccoon in the area are not just forcing them to live in close proximity to humans, but they are now becoming pests. The creatures are scattering garbage all over the streets, digging into plants, turning over containers in people’s backyard searching for food and even attacking domestic animals. “Like the crocodiles that have learned to feed on garbage, so have the rodents and raccoons. When garbage is not properly disposed of or contained this source of food is irresistible to animals,” stated Chenot-Rose.
Adding to the roaming wild animals that feed on garbage are stray dogs. According to the President of SAGA Humane Society in San Pedro Town, Katy Eggert, they remove between 25 and 30 dogs off the streets of the island on a monthly basis. Most of the dogs removed are male that are unneutered and aggressive. Eggert stated that while the record shows an improvement in stray animals, it is still an issue but they continue to work diligently to minimize the number of stray animals. Stray animals, most who depend on discarded garbage for food, also add to the environmental and health problems in some parts of the island.
For Chenot-Rose, the combined issue of wild animals and stray animals roaming amongst humans and feeding on garbage is a threat to human health. “Not only will wild animals such as crocodiles become more aggressive towards humans but other wild rodents and raccoons and even stray dog can carry diseases and parasites.” According to Chenot-Rose, those diseases are mainly but not limited to parasites, Rabies, Hantavirus and Leptospirosis and Rat-bite fever. While there have been no confirmed cases of these diseases in the area to date, Dr. Javier Zuniga, Director of the San Pedro PolyClinic stated that they do get cases of dog bites regularly. “We do get cases of people being bitten by dogs on a regular basis, but we cannot point to the fact that it’s a direct cause of stray animals,” stated Zuniga. Zuniga reported that stray animals and even wild animals such as rodents and raccoons are carriers of diseases and should be of concern even more so since they have become more visible in our neighborhoods.
Ambergris Caye Health Inspector Godswell Flores stated that both wandering wild animals and stray domestic animals are of concern to the Health Department. “They are of serious concern because your health can be compromised,” said Flores.
But what can be done? First and foremost, Sabido and Chenot-Rose agree that to minimize the environmental impact, prior to any new development, an animal population assessment should be conducted. “While development will not stop, such assessment will indicate what level of development should be done, measures that need to be taken to ensure that the wild animals do not become a problem and if it does, it will indicate what would be the best possible solution,” indicated Sabido. For the time being, Sabido stated that they have been working with ACES to relocate problem crocs. As for the raccoons and rodents, Sabido stated that they are more than a pest; they pose a real health concern. “We will be working with immediate interest to address the raccoon and rodent situation. We know for a fact that once these wild animals have learned an easy way to hunt for food, such as consuming garbage, it is hard to get them out of that practice, so we will have to deal with it differently than what we are doing with the crocodiles,” said Sabido. Those actions would be to reduce the population of the raccoons since they are known to reproduce at an accelerated rate.
Health Inspector Flores on the other hand stated that the health department advises pet owners to contain their pets and ask house owners to dispose of their garbage properly. “Public education is the best thing; we need to educate our people about the issue, continuously advise them to contain their garbage that attracts these wild and stray animals and report any case of wild or stray animals to the Forestry or Health Departments,” Flores concluded.