In an attempt to escape the very noisy, avian residents of the El Socorro Centre for Wildlife Conservation, Ricardo Meade sits before an audio recorder under the bushes, just off of the Centre’s main building. But it’s a cold, grey, rainy day, and the weather would eventually dictate the relocation of this Interview Portrait session right back beside those bird cages, in which many sprightly, colourful parrots and other birds reside as the Centre’s ‘animal ambassadors’ or for rehabilitation.
Though named ‘El Socorro’, the Centre is actually found on the lands of Wa Samaki Ecosystems in Freeport, Trinidad, where it enacts the goal of its motto, ‘Sustaining biodiversity. Preserving the future’. It aims to perform this function through a heavy push at public education.
“People do not seem to understand the linkages. So we’re trying to create that.” Though he is very much a patriotic Trini, and along with what some may call a morbid sense of humour, Ricardo is unapologetically critical of society’s adverse environmental effects. With that in mind, he views public education as the single, most important, activity that the Centre can do. “Because we could follow international standards and pass every law [out there] to protect the animals. We could hire thousands of enforcement officials to try and ensure the laws are enforced. [But] we’re still going to have people out there without the care and understanding for the wildlife, for the environment, and they will continue doing what they do. So by educating people, it’s the only way to really change [and] get that shift away from our culture now of, ‘kill everything and eat everything’. Or ‘dispose of everything’. Or believing that everything is just there for our consumption.”
El Socorro was founded ten years prior when Ricardo returned from a fifteen-year stint in New York, being a member of the New York Society for the Conservation of Wildlife, as well as running his own business, and working at a pet shop there. Upon his return to Trinidad, he was disgusted to see the attitudes toward wildlife on the islands, and took steps to educate persons about the natural, animal resources. The Centre grew quickly, perhaps because of a void in supply of wildlife outreach, but he says, “Until 1.3 million people are touched by our outreach programme and they understand [the importance of wildlife], we’ve got to keep going.” The first animals the Centre took in were orphaned toucans. Sadly, only one bird survived. Named Zeus, he became the Centre’s mascot. Later, because agouti are heavily hunted in Trinidad and Tobago as ‘wildmeat’, an orphaned agouti came in. Soon after, a heavy incoming of snakes began, rescued from the houses of scared homeowners, threatening, “…’If you don’t come and take it, I going to kill it!'”
Soon enough, the Centre built up a small collection of animals, and it was decided to use them as ‘ambassadors’. “We wanted to show people the beauty of these animals. When we realised how misrepresented they are, and mistreated they are in this country. [We] had that open-house, and it was well attended — two-hundred and forty people we topped out on that day. And everybody was excited because they never had that opportunity to see something like this and to interact on that level. They might have gone to a zoo before and seen animals, but they don’t usually get the interactivity and the education that comes along with the way we do a talk.” In attendance at one of those talks was Detta VanAardt-Buch, who runs the well-known Wildlife Orphanage and Rehabilitation Centre, and she challenged the El Socorro Centre to train itself in rehabilitation too. The advice was heeded, and El Socorro staff members headed to the US States of Virginia, then New Mexico to train with the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, later to Florida to take part in conferences there as well. A solid rehabilitation arm was added to El Socorro Centre’s abilities, however education is still its priority by far.
Funding for El Socorro comes largely through Ricardo’s personal, monetary investment. Labour is provided by a small fleet of volunteers who offer their time and energy, and the Centre sometimes receives donations of building materials from construction sites. Meanwhile fruits and vegetables that would be unsuitable for sale in the market are donated as well. Added to this, Atlantic has been sponsoring large wildlife displays at Point Fortin during the annual World Environment Month, and this has been a consistent support.
There are over four-hundred and fifty-eight species of birds in Trinidad and Tobago. Because of sheer numbers, birds tend to be the most commonly brought in wildlife for medical attention. Often times pet cats and dogs cause harm to them. As for agoutis, animals injured during hunting attempts are brought in, as well as ones orphaned by the act of hunting itself. Hunters often use packs of dogs to chase their quarry, but those dogs can unintentionally be very disruptive to many other animals along the way. Ocelot females, for example, may sometimes abandon their litters according to Ricardo, because they become so afraid and disoriented by the trampling hunters and dogs. Red brocket deer have possibly been made extinct in Tobago, and are in very low numbers in Trinidad, because of overhunting. Ironically, because they are now rare, they’ve become an even more prized kill. Some hunters now also directly hunt ocelot, falsely thinking that to do so would increase agouti numbers. The reverse is actually true, because by removing the natural apex predator from an eco-system, the system overall becomes weaker.
When questioned as to why wildmeat remains so popular, even as farmed meat can be cheaper and more easily available, he says that some persons he’s spoken to have adopted the view that, “‘It’s our culture.’ And you know the funny thing is, when exposed to different cultures, we become very critical of them! Because it’s their culture. For example, people who eat eels, or who consume dogs as a delicacy, ‘Oh! That is horrible!’ — How is that any different from eating macajuel, eating manicou, eating ocelots? [But] we, when faced with different cultures we’re really quick to criticise, ‘That’s them! Oh gud!’ — Now we’re doing the same thing. [Now] I have no problem [and you] could eat anything [you want], [but] is it sustainable? Are you going to have a negative impact on the environment? And if your answer is ‘yes’, then you need to rethink, and recalculate what you’re doing.”
Development done in a haphazard manner could also be damaging. As Ricardo describes, our supply of fresh drinking water comes from the forests, which filters the running water of rivers and streams. Poorly-planned development can also isolate pockets of forest, therefore pockets of wildlife, keeping them from interacting with other populations, and stagnating their mating pools. Additionally, roads in unsuitable places can put many animals at risk of being struck by vehicles, while also providing a hazard to motorists. Fear of some animals, such as snakes, bats, and spiders can inspire some homeowners to slay harmless creatures.
Finally, there’s what Ricardo describes as, “Pure, straight-forward nastiness!” He says, “I am as red, black, and white Trini as any Trini could be. I love my country. [But] you have to look at yourself in the mirror sometimes. And when I look at myself, and [when] I look at Trinis objectively, we are very nasty. We take our garbage [and] our construction rubble from by our homes, and we go and throw it into someone else’s home, someone else’s backyard, or in the river! Look where the fridge is and the stoves and so on that end up there. We have a deserted road that’s close to us, and I just have to pass there everyday and I see the washing machine, the stove, the this, the that. So you have enough money to buy a new, fancy one, and then didn’t have enough time now, [so] you go and throw it in the bush? And then you cry when you have dengue and ‘chick v’ and then the mosquitoes breeding and then there’s rats and stuff like that? Come on Trinidad and Tobago! Wake up and be smart! It doesn’t go anywhere, it’s going to come back to bite you in the ass! It’s that simple!”
“We have to buckle down and do the right thing [or] else we’ll lose this country. And then we’re going to [do what]? Go somewhere else? No, we have paradise! [So] let’s protect it together.”
As dismal as it may all seem, Ricardo takes heart in one strong source of optimism, and that is the vigorous engagement of the many persons who visit the Centre. While it seems that persons between the ages of teen to middle-aged adult are closed off, children and primary school students are very curious and responsive as many children are, as well as elderly persons. Ricardo attributes that to them being old enough to have seen the changes in the environment in their own lifetimes.
“The funny thing is, working with animals, I have become much better with people. Did not realise how it would happen, but when it happened, I realised it. It’s quite simply, to deal with animals, they do not tell you what is wrong. [So you have to develop] a sense of [being] more receptive and open to non-verbal communication — you look for signs. And people communicate non-verbally more than they do verbally. So the mouth will lie, but the body will tell you the truth. So they’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m okay!’ but you’re trembling in the corner? [Well] I’m not going to believe you’re ‘okay’, I’d believe you’re trembling in the corner — you’re afraid. So I’ve become much better at working with people, to the point where, to a certain extent, we’ve started doing ‘people rehabilitation’. People have come in here with all sorts of problems or in situations, and they’ve kind of ‘found themselves’ or found something here that works for them, and they’re learning to be better people. And that is what I believe was not expected, but it’s a wonderful positive from this whole experience of working with animals. Some people have found themselves. Some people who were withdrawn, depressed have found something [for which they] were able to open up to and draw themselves out of [that]. So that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to be able to do.”
Contact the El Socorro Centre for Wildlife Conservation via email at , Facebook, or call (868) 673-5753.