Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Chris Summers – Remembering our island “Crocodile Man” and Conservation Hero

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By Tamara Sniffin
SPSUN Editor

In late 2010, I received a thoughtful email from a young man, Chris Summers, who wondered if there was a way to desensitize crocodiles, essentially deprogramming them from their unnatural and dangerous association with man and food.

It was 2008, and Ambergris Caye had a crocodile problem. Habituated by easy meals from improperly disposed garbage and fed by locals as a tourist attraction at the WASA Lagoon south of San Pedro Town, the creatures, many more than ten feet in length, had lost all fear of man, creating a dangerous situation for all. With growing concern, I reached out to Cherie and Vince Rose, the founders of ACES American Crocodile Education Sanctuary in Punta Gorda, southern Belize.

Authorized by the Belize Forest Department to help manage problematic crocodiles, ACES conducted several trips to the island over the next two years to assess, catch, and relocate crocodiles that demonstrated an aggressive, unnatural lack of fear towards humans. The San Pedro Sun printed countless articles about the problem of habituated crocodiles and the efforts undertaken by ACES to protect the community and the American Crocodile, an endangered species. In late 2010, I received a thoughtful email from a young man, Chris Summers, who wondered if there was a way to desensitize crocodiles, essentially deprogramming them from their unnatural and dangerous association with man and food. I suggested he contact Cherie at ACES with his questions and that perhaps he would like to help when they were conducting crocodile surveys and dealing with croc-related issues on the island. And so, it all began.

The first crocodile Chris single-handedly caught. With ACES founders Vince & Cherie Rose. ~ Feb. 2011

During the first week of September 2010, Chris assisted ACES with several croc-assessments to determine if certain animals were dangerous to the community and needed relocation. His interest was keen, and he never hesitated to follow Vince’s sometimes terse instructions, jumping in and getting dirty when the time came to capture an aggressive animal. You could tell Chris loved the exhilarating experience (as nerve-racking as it was), but more than anything, his compassion for the creature was genuine. He wasn’t in this for the thrill; he was there because he genuinely cared about the animal’s well-being and doing what was best.

Over those few days, with Chris’s help, ACES contained three problematic crocs and readied them for transport to their sanctuary in Punta Gorda. On September 5th, ACES learned that the sanctuary and the home they had built over the last six years were burned to the ground by villagers who claimed they were responsible for two missing children. ACES literally fell into devastated pieces, and Chris became an immediate part of the heartbroken family. Never once did he look back.

Determined to continue their important work, ACES reestablished on Ambergris Caye, and Chris was tirelessly there every step of the way. It was hard, manual, hot, dirty work. Vince and Chris spent countless hours finding locations for a new sanctuary, building enclosures, and installing croc pools whenever someone offered a little piece of land for the project. ACES conducted educational presentations at local schools and unwaveringly responded to calls when unwelcome crocodiles appeared under someone’s home or sadly took a family pet. Under the worst conditions, often crawling through sewage-tainted water or mud inches thick, Chris and Vince never faltered in their attempts to rescue and relocate a crocodile.

Chris’s Belizean roots run deep. It is easy to believe that he inherited some of his caring nature from his late grandmother, Nurse Natalie Palen, who lovingly delivered and cared for hundreds of babies – even generations of babies on the island. In 2014, Chris became the manager of ACES when the Roses moved away. Under their guidance, Chris continued to respond to calls of problematic crocodiles and led educational CSI-Croc Scientific Investigation evening boat tours through the mangrove lagoons. He began building containment and rehab structures on his grandmother’s property north of San Pedro Town, the beginning of a new sanctuary.

The organization grew as the demand for wildlife rescue expanded to creatures other than crocodiles on the island. With community support, financial grants, a group of dedicated volunteers, and the establishment of a Board of Directors, ACES evolved into Aces Wildlife Rescue in 2021, complete with a 24/7 emergency wildlife response team, rehabilitation facility, and sanctuary. By expanding their skills, knowledge base, and qualifications, they have committed themselves to serving their community and the various wildlife species of the Cayes. With his beloved Christina Manzi, Aces’ lead wildlife rehabber at his side, the dynamic duo were unstoppable wildlife and environmental conservation advocates and established symbiotic relationships with other conservation and wildlife organizations in the country while earning their well-deserved respect.

Chris & Christina

 

I shared countless croc rescues with Chris and the ACES team, each time a crazy, scary, and rewarding adventure. I was there when young Chris caught his first baby crocodile in February 2011 when we were out on a survey. We were so proud of him! Little did we know what a monumental occasion it indeed was. Over the last fourteen years, Chris grew from a somewhat insecure, endearing “skinny kiddo” to a strong, confident, dedicated, and passionate man. His commitment to the environment and the many animals on the island who call it home was unwavering. His pain was palatable when trying to right the many environmental wrongs, and his concern for all things living was endless. He equally loved them all, from adopting pets from our local humane society to rescuing crocodiles, turtles, boa constrictors, iguanas, birds, squirrels, raccoons, and even anteaters.

We liked to live vicariously through Chris, his extreme croc and wild animal rescue stories entertaining and darn right frightening at times. He wasn’t just all the above; he was warm and caring to everyone. We could count on him for anything; his smile and quick wit were just icing on the cake. He always called me “T,” which I loved. Belize and all her creatures may have lost an unsung hero, but for those who knew and loved him, his song will remain strong within our hearts. Let us honor his legacy with a renewed commitment to all things precious to Chris by making them our own. Rest in peace, Chris; we will forever remember and love you.

~ ~ ~

Chris was born in High Wycombe, Bucks, UK and moved to Ambergris Caye in 2008 where he lived with his beloved grandmother Natalie Palen. He is survived by his mother – Amanda, father – Sean, siblings Grant, Jason, Jessica, and the love of his life – Christina.

A memorial will be held at The Truck Stop on Tuesday, June 4th at 5pm. All friends, family, and conservation lovers are welcome.

Chris built a strong foundation for ACES and was its rock. The Board is committed to continuing the legacy of ACES in his honor.  24/7 wildlife assistance remains available at 623-7920.

Donations in memory of Chris can be made to ACES to continue his work at https://www.aceswildliferescue.org

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