Animal Tales

The Milwaukee Belize Connection

Emmanuel Peck

Emmanuel Peck, a keeper from The Belize Zoo, feeds Inca terns in the Milwaukee County Zoo’s bird building.

The Milwaukee County Zoo and Zoological Society of Milwaukee have a longstanding relationship with The Belize Zoo and conservation efforts in Belize. Recently, Zoo staff from Milwaukee went to Belize and a zookeeper from Belize visited Milwaukee.

Milwaukee to Belize

It was 2 a.m. in the middle of the Belizean wilderness. Bob Korman, a Milwaukee County Zoo veterinary technician, was sitting in the bed of a Chevy Silverado pickup in the April heat. He noticed the endless stars lighting the sky and the intermittent bird calls piercing the stillness of the savanna.

Korman was in Belize with Dr. Taylor Yaw, the Zoo’s veterinary resident, to assist a team of field biologists trying to learn more about the endangered Baird’s tapir. The team had set out seven snares that could humanely trap tapirs at Runaway Creek, a 6,000-acre rainforest preserve. Every two hours, someone went into the savanna with a radio antenna to see if any of the snares’ transmitters had been tripped.

Tapir

The Baird’s tapir is the largest land mammal in Central America. Its range has shrunk significantly due to habitat loss.

It was Korman’s turn to check the antenna. This was the last night of his eight-day trip, and they hadn’t trapped any tapirs yet. He checked transmissions from the first trap. Nothing. Same with the second, third and fourth traps. But the fifth transmitter was clicking like crazy. “I walked into the camp and said, ‘Gentlemen, we need to wake up!’” Korman recalls. The team grabbed their supplies, hopped into the truck and drove into the jungle. “We got close to the trap and there’s this huge tapir under a tree, almost as if she’s hiding from us, totally calm.”

It was an exciting moment. The staff at Runaway Creek is just four people, including Wilber Martinez, who is doing doctoral research on tapir conservation. Since they don’t have a veterinarian on staff, they only attempt to collar tapirs with the help of visiting veterinary professionals. This was just the second tapir they had trapped and the first female.

The team managed to dart the tapir, but she was so large — at least 400 pounds, Korman estimates — that Yaw also had to hand-inject her with anesthetic. They put a collar on her that transmits GPS data on her location every six hours before returning her to the wild as the anesthetic wore off. “It was totally exhilarating,” Korman says.

The GPS data is critical to seeing where the tapirs roam. The Baird’s tapir was once abundant from southeast Mexico to the northern tip of South America, but the population has dropped below 5,000 due to threats such as hunting and commercial development. Deforestation for large agricultural plantations has also destroyed habitat in the Maya Forest Corridor where the tapirs and many other species live in Belize.

Korman is worried the tapirs could face increasing threats in Belize. A gravel highway running through the corridor is scheduled to be paved next year. “That’s going to bring a lot more traffic and a lot more roadkill,” he says. But he’s encouraged that the Belizean government recently announced plans to protect the corridor, recognizing it as an area of “natural significance.”

Yaw came away impressed with the Runaway Creek staff, particularly their knowledge of the native wildlife. “I felt like I learned so much from them,” he says. “These guys are extremely professional.”

Since Korman and Yaw’s trip, the Runaway Creek staff has collared a third tapir with the help of a Mexican veterinarian. Yaw recently completed his residency in Milwaukee and started work at the Texas State Aquarium. He hopes to return to Belize to work in manatee and sea turtle conservation. Korman also hopes to return, even though he recently started a new job at the Minnesota Zoo. “The place is magical,” he says.

Belize to Milwaukee

Emmanuel Peck

Emmanuel Peck, a keeper from The Belize Zoo, feeds Inca terns in the Milwaukee County Zoo’s bird building.

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Emmanuel Peck. “First time traveling, first time flying, first time giving a presentation,” he ticks off on his fingers. The 29-year-old zookeeper from The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center is in Milwaukee to learn from and observe staff at the Milwaukee County Zoo. His visit, the first from a Belize keeper to the Milwaukee County Zoo, is the latest step in the “Pat Gives Back” initiative.

Pat was a jaguar born in the wild of Belize. He was nearly killed by farmers because he was attacking livestock, but instead he was brought to The Belize Zoo and rehabilitated. He then came to the Milwaukee County Zoo, where he lived for nine years and fathered two sets of cubs before he died in 2017.

Pat was a special animal to Zoo staff, so they wanted to find a way to give back to the zoo that rehabilitated him. Zoo employees have visited The Belize Zoo several times to give workshops on training, enrichment, safety and other issues. The time had now come for a Belize keeper to visit Milwaukee. Peck arrived in August for a two-week visit. “It’s a different experience than attending a workshop in Belize,” says Katie Kuhn, big cats supervisor. “Some things are easier to learn hands on. Being up here, Peck gets more one-on-one time and experiences.”

Milwaukee is very different from The Belize Zoo, which has about 210 animals, all of them native to Belize, Peck says. Milwaukee has more indoor exhibits and animals from all over the world. He has learned new skills such as handling snakes, drawing blood and practicing animal-escape drills. Belize One of his favorite experiences was weighing a red panda cub, an animal he’d never seen before.

The Pat Gives Back initiative, which is made possible through funding from a special donor, has changed Peck’s life, he says. Before he met the Milwaukee keepers three years ago, he thought of being a zookeeper as just another job. “Now I see it as a career.” His coworkers have encouraged him, and he feels a responsibility to share with them what he has learned in Milwaukee. “Not everybody has this experience, so I’m going to take it and not let it go to waste.”

He certainly has not, Kuhn says. More than one person said they wished he could stay on as a zookeeper here. The teams from Milwaukee and Belize will evaluate the visit and Peck’s feedback to plan future exchanges. Next year Milwaukee staff will offer more workshops in Belize focused on record-keeping and animal nutrition, Kuhn says. They hope to participate in future conservation projects with Runaway Creek and the Ya’axché Conservation Trust in Belize.

Although the partnership started with a jaguar, it’s the people who make it so strong, Kuhn says. “We have found a great group of folks on both ends who mutually respect each other, value each other’s experiences and knowledge, and are excited to share that with each other.”

By Stacy Vogel Davis

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Alive magazine.