Meet a Scientist

Today we have an interview by Anna Mazzaro. She has just met my former field assistant, Ricardo Moreno, who is now my colleague in research. He started as an undergraduate assistant collecting animal tracks (in plaster) on BCI, and then later replacing film in my cameras on the trails. Now he has his own project on BCI and we work together. Anna learned about his interests and background.

guy holding an ocelot

Today I had the opportunity to talk with a special person from the Barro Colorado Island. His name is Ricardo Moreno and he's been doing research on BCI for about three years studying animals from the cat family.

Here are some of the questions we asked Ricardo.

Ricardo, where are you from?
I'm Panamanian. I'm from Panama City.

What are you studying?
I'm studying biology and zoology (study of animals). Even though I finished all my courses, I'm working on my thesis to be able to graduate from the university in March.

What motivated you to become a scientist?
This wasn't a desire that I had since I was child. When I was going to school I was a little bit lazy. I had a cat that I loved so I studied his behavior for seven years. It was something fascinating and exciting for me, it wasn't boring at all. During the years Istudied my cat, I followed him everywhere, I wanted to know what he was doing, where he was going, who he was with, who was the dominant cat in his group. I wanted to know everything about him. This is how the interest about cats started to grow in me.

That's why I decided to become a veterinarian. This looked like the best profession for me: I would have my own money and I would work with animals that I loved so much. But,someone advised and showed me that I didn't want to become a veterinarian, I wanted to be a biologist, and helped me find the career that was best for me.I wanted to study the animals' behavior, know more about them, find out as much as possible about their habits. This is how I started to study in the University of Panama to be a biologist.

The first two years, even though I was studying what I wanted, the courses were very tough and frustrating for me. Everything was very theoretical. Many of my professors didn't encourage me. They tried to discourage me, telling me that I didn't have any future studying cats. When I met a graduate student named Rafael Samudio Jr, he understood me. He encouraged and supported my desire to continue studying, he encouraged me to become the first Panamanian to study wild cats.

What happened after those hard years and how did you get to where you are today?

While I was going to school I became a volunteer in Ancon. There I tried to learned all the best things that were going to help me in the future. For many years there was a big silence about wild cats in Panama. Nobody talked about them. It was like a dark secret. But, my great love and passion for them helped me to get where I am today.

Even though I consider myself a shy person, when I have to talk about cats, my passion for them takes over me, I forget that I'm shy, and I start talking about them without stopping. Since 1998 I have given 10 national and three international talks about wild cats. When I start talking about them, I forget about time, I can talk for hours and hours, they are fascinating animals.

What do you like the most about being a scientist?

Having the opportunity to study the wild cats that are my love and passion, study more about their behavior, and habits. It is extremely exciting when I go to develop a roll of film from the cameras we have on the island and-- what a surprise when I can see a wild cat!

I want to learn more about cats such as ocelots, pumas, jaguars. I'm sure we only know about 30% of their behavior. I want to know more and more about them! With the new technology that we have now, I hope to find out more about them and share it with the people that love these animals.

What do you do on BCI?
I follow the cats' trace. This implies many things: follow their tracks, collect excrement, look for and identify latrines, put photographic cameras in strategic places, look for the pregnant females and later for their cubs. These are some of the components of my work. This means I have to get up early and go to sleep late, but I don't mind. What is really important for me is to learn more about cats.

How is your typical day on BCI?
Well, for someone else it might seem boring, but it's not for me.

  • 6:45 AM I get up and have breakfast. At this time, I take the advantage to talk to the people that I get to see. 
  • 7:00 AM I start to walk on the trails to follow the cats' tracks and collect the data I find. 
  • 12:00 PM I have lunch and talk about my experiences with other scientists as well as I listen to theirs.
  • 1:00 PM I go to the computer room to work. There I enter the data I collected that day and make comparison with previous ones.
  • 3:00 PM I read journals, write reports.
  • 5:30 PM I take time to rest, read and listen to music that I love.
  • 6:30 PM I go to dinner and coffee. This means more time to share with others.
  • 8:00 PM I go out on the trails if there's an ocelot that has a radio collar. These are very important walks because most cats are nocturnal.
  • 11:30 PM I get back and I go to bed. If I don't go on the trails, I read, write or go to the lake.

What would be your advice for a child that wants to become a scientist when he/she grows up?
If you want to do something, do it with love and passion. Do what you really like.

Besides his thesis and finishing his studies, Ricardo is working on a project to help people that raise cattle for a living in Portobello. These people are facing a big problem: jaguars and pumas have been killing their animals. This is a very serious problem for them because this is their only income. The more animals that die, the more money they lose. At the beginning, Ricardo didn't know how to face these people. But little by little, he was explaining to them the reasons why the wild cats do what they do. With great patience and dedication, Ricardo won their friendship and confidence. Now, they are helping Ricardo collecting the cats' scats (excrement) and saving him the cows skulls that show the cats' teeth. Ricardo has been able to make the people aware that the cats kill for survival and not to harm the farmers.

Ricardo wants to find a program that would pay owners for the cows that have been killed by wild animals, and works with Jackie on grant proposals to request funds. This is a very difficult but important project.

Ricardo, we wish you the best on this project and everything else that you do. We hope we can soon learn more about wild cats through all your efforts and commitment.

Muchas gracias!